The conflict in Syria has been going on for almost six years and despite events in Aleppo would appear to have the potential to go on for even longer. This piece examines the state of play in the country and examines the current trends arguing that the Syria of the past is unlikely to return and a far weaker, fragmented entity is likely to emerge in future.
On the 15th of March 2017, Syrians will mark the sixth anniversary of the crisis that engulfed their country. Many Syrians will mark the date far away from their former homes and the country of their birth. Some have successfully crossed into Europe and are building new lives, others have died trying, yet the vast majority of the nearly five million Syrian refugees remain in the region. Often, these families will be a matter of hours travel from where their lives were once based, but they know the Syria they once knew is gone.
Towards the end of 2016 and the Russian-backed and often Lebanese-Hezbollah led offensive on opposition-held east Aleppo led many to speculate that Assad could be on the verge of “winning” the war, but what “winning” in Syria looks like is important to qualify.
Syria has suffered the most dramatic collapse in terms of state and society of the twenty-first century. The numbers are staggering and create an enormity that is sometimes difficult to process. In addition to the nearly 5 million refugees are the over 6.5 million internally displaced, meaning that roughly half the country has been forced from their homes due to the crisis. Estimates of the dead vary from 200,000 to nearly half a million. The forensic evidence based art of counting casualties has become almost impossible in the black hole that the conflict has created and academics admit they simply don’t know accurately how many have lost their lives.
Whilst the number of dead people may be obscured, the wounded are better understood. The UN assessment published towards the end of 2016 estimated that roughly 30,000 Syrian people were wounded by violence each month and some 9,000 suffered from a permanent disability. The country’s economy has been halved and the World Bank’s conservative estimate is that reconstruction costs alone would add up to some $180bn.
So any “victory” has to be put in the context of the cost to date and what sort of country the nominal victor would inherit. Meanwhile Syria still remains a playground for regional and international interests. The latest UN and Arab League envoy, Staffan de Mistura, the man with arguably the hardest job on the planet, counted twelve countries and 89 armed groups involved in the fighting on the ground.
Just as Syria is no longer a unitary state, its civil war has many facets and conflicts within conflicts. In December 2016, there were three active offensives evolving simultaneously; the most high profile was the Regime and its allies against opposition groups in Aleppo, Idlib and the Damascus suburbs in particular. Meanwhile “Operation: Euphrates Shield” was a far less reported but still very important push by Turkish-backed forces against ISIS in the north of the country, whilst “Operation: Euphrates Anger” put US-backed mainly Kurdish forces against ISIS in Raqqa, the supposed capital of the “Caliphate”.
The movement of these offensives have been tracked by the Institute for the Study of War whose indispensable maps show the fault lines of the Syria of today and perhaps hint at what the Syria of tomorrow could look like.
The Regime is worth examining closer. Despite the ubiquitous presence of President Assad and his amazingly consistent narrative of the plucky nationalist leader of a country under attack from a conspiracy comprised of enemies from abroad, the reality of where power lies in Syria is more complex.
The loss of so much blood and treasure, whether in terms of the manpower of the army of the resources of the state, forced Assad to compromise in order to survive. Such a compromise did not come at the various Geneva peace conferences that have come and gone but rather to his allies inside the country and crucially in Tehran, Moscow and elsewhere.
Internally, the devolution of power to the National Defense Forces and to groups like the notorious “Shabiha” was a policy born out of necessity. For an authoritarian state to surrender such powers over its monopoly of violence was the only means to hold territory in key areas. The corruption that existed in the regime before 2011, in terms of racketeering and profiting from the informal economy, became something that others could now exploit in a wartime setting. The most dramatic form this took was control of checkpoints, and the bribes and extortion that was required to deal with them. Checkpoints are a manifestation of a crisis in sovereignty and their proliferation in Syria was a symptom of the rapid retreat of the state.
By the end of 2016, a clear picture was emerging in how the regime, bolstered by Russian airpower, Iranian financial support and Iraqi and Lebanese militias, was looking to restore a more assertive posture. Simply put areas that were home to opposition forces would be sealed off and isolated, almost as if the country was identifying diseased parts of its body to remove. These areas, whether large parts of cities like east Aleppo, towns like Madaya or suburbs like Yarmouk, would then be indiscriminately hammered by artillery and air strikes, with the “barrel bomb” becoming symbolic of the levels that the conflict had descended to.
Where there appeared to be the most directed targeting was against civilian infrastructure and hospitals and bakeries in particular. In order to ensure that the tactic of “starve or surrender” worked, the sieges didn’t discriminate between fighters and civilians living within them, they would all suffer together. Occasional glimpses of the consequences of such a slow death emerged as social media showed emaciated children or relayed stories of people resorting to eating grass to survive. Meanwhile schools and medical facilities were being forced underground as the laws that govern such protected spaces seemed unable to penetrate the darkness that had enveloped the country.
In December 2016, the UN revised its estimations of Syrians living under siege to almost a million people; double what is was from the year previous. As abhorrent and illegal the collective punishment was, it was a tactic that undoubtedly worked as opposition groups agreed time and again to accept being transferred out to other parts of the country.
The international community was divided at the UN Security Council about how to handle the Syrian conflict. Even agreements around upholding humanitarian law and principles haemorrhaged legitimacy as resolutions made in New York failed to cut through on the ground. Despite nominal agreements to allow aid to reach the millions of Syrians who needed it, the push back of a shadowy bureaucratic system thwarted it time and time again. Things got so bad in the middle of 2016 that suddenly states started pushing for air drops of aid, expensive and impractical methods but at least symbolic of an attempt to show Syrians living in cut off areas that they were not alone.
In December, as the opposition-held areas of east Aleppo collapsed in on themselves in the face of the sheer weight of firepower aligned against them, even more innovative methods of aid delivery began to be discussed. These included edible drones and remote controlled parachutes that could be directed into targeted locations from outside of Syria’s airspace.
Yet it isn’t technical solutions that will solve Syria’s humanitarian dilemmas but rather political will, and Western powers have to date showed both war weariness and a lack of clarity as to what they should bring to the table. Such indecision was perhaps best typified by the Obama White House, whose rhetoric around “red lines” and a desire to see Assad “transition” out of power informed both the tactics and strategy of certain facets of opposition forces. Such misunderstandings were in contrast to Moscow’s commitment to the regime in Damascus a legacy of historic relations – former President Hafez Assad once trained in Russia as a pilot whilst the then Soviets were responsible for much of the country’s infrastructure during the Cold War period – and opportunity to move into a space seemingly ceded by Washington.
Thus as 2017 begins the momentum is clearly heading in one direction, but as described earlier, the course of the Turkish expansion in the north and what happens if ISIS collapses to the east remain huge unanswered questions. Predictions as to how the conflict will evolve are prone to a huge margin of error considering the chaotic nature of events to date but it would still seem realistic to envisage a fragmented and weak state deeply penetrated by foreign actors and presiding over a hugely divided society. One observer once quipped to me that a Syria of the future would look like “Lebanon on crack” as in addition to sectarian cleavages serious questions remain as to the future of the ethnic Kurdish population in the Arab Republic of Syria.
The most unpredictable element in this complicated and bloody equation is of course trying to imagine the foreign policy of President Trump. Whilst some speculate he will fully cede space to Moscow, others wisely hold their judgement on an individual who has made much of actively being unpredictable as a means of achieving results. Whilst Obama’s more lawyerly approached to foreign affairs was masked by his rhetorical skills, Trump is a property magnate who knows that in transactional deals, it doesn’t hurt if your opponents can’t predict what you’ll do next. Whether Trump is ready for Syria, or Syria is ready for Trump is perhaps the most interesting question to examine as we enter the 7th year of the Syrian crisis.
Featured image courtesy: Hosam Katan/Reuters
About the Author
James Denselow is a writer on Middle East politics and security issues and a Director of the New Diplomacy Platform (NDP). He has worked extensively in the Middle East, including research for foreign policy think tank Chatham House, writing and reporting for several media publications and for communications and advocacy work with international NGOs. He is a contributing author to An Iraq of Its Regions: Cornerstones of a Federal Democracy? and America and Iraq: Policy-making, Intervention and Regional Politics Since 1958 and has advised the British Government on its policy towards the Arab Spring. He is a Research Associate at the Foreign Policy Centre (FPC) and a Fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies (CSS).