Syria: a war with no winners
29 Jul 2019|

One of the frustrating and tragic aspects of the Syrian conflict is its capacity to regenerate in ever-more complex guises. So many players are involved, both internal and external, that the conventional media have pretty much given up on trying to summarise what’s happening and the audience has mostly switched off.

As a result, little notice has been given to events on the seam between the regime’s forces north and west of Hama and the rebel-held territory (largely overlapping with Idlib province) in the northern Orontes valley and the limestone hills to the west of Aleppo. For the past three years, government forces have been trying to push rebel units back from the freeway that crosses the Orontes and then drops over the Bdama pass to the regime heartland on the coast, only 50 kilometres away. The rebels’ push four years ago to reach the pass (and strike into the government’s heartland) is what brought Russia into the conflict as a direct participant.

Having regained the momentum in the south, regime forces redeployed to the north. Idlib province was chosen as the disposal site for rebel units that had been evacuated from ‘hot’ areas in the south under the series of disengagement agreements, usually brokered through Russian supervision. The rebel enclave in Idlib, previously held by a mix of forces from secular- to al-Qaeda-based origins, has increasingly become a haven for the latter. Turkish observation posts provided a ring around the enclave, but it is increasingly a hellish blend of Salafism and racketeering with the civilian population caught in the crossfire.

Turkey’s earlier policy of cutting back its support to rebels has reportedly now been rebalanced with resumed delivery of rocket-borne weaponry. Clearly, this is being reflected in the difficulty the regime is having in pushing back rebel efforts to threaten Hama (a city that has largely stayed out of the conflict so far) and the Aleppo–Latakia highway.

Further north, in the belt south of the Turkish border from Afrin to the US-coalition enclave stretching across to Iraq, conflict has been sporadic. But resentment among the Sunni population at the primary role the tiny US presence accords to Kurdish militia forces is hardly a basis for a lasting settlement across this vast Arab-majority area.

The Geneva- and Astana-based peace ‘processes’ are currently frozen, though they might yet provide a mechanism for scaling down violence. While the Syrian population faces a ninth year of disruption, violence or displacement, some of the external players may be wearying too and holding back from active support for new campaigns. Russia retains a high-profile role, but the Iranian militia elements that effectively stiffened the resolve of the depleted and war-weary Syrian units in other sectors are conspicuous by their absence in the Idlib fighting.

As of July 2019, official UNHCR figures for the number of Syrian refugees outside Syria can be broken down as follows: Turkey, 3.614 million; Lebanon, 930,000; Jordan, 662,000. Those totals don’t include Syrians who have sought refuge in Europe or in other Middle Eastern countries or who have applied under UNHCR auspices to seek resettlement outside Syria (163,834 at May 2019).

The number of Syrians returning to home areas, mostly in the south, has been rising since 2016, but it’s still a fraction of the outward flow over the previous five years. UNHCR, however, has begun to give figures for ‘self-organised’ returns—173,000 as of 31 May 2019. The actual number may be higher, as the estimate only includes cases ‘verified/monitored’ by UNHCR.

UNHCR surveys of refugees in the neighbouring countries indicate that 76% intend to return but only 4% plan to return in the next 12 months. The main barriers are ongoing violence in some areas, loss of home and livelihood, fear of reprisal, and difficulty in establishing claims to abandoned property. These are the same factors discouraging the 6 million internally displaced Syrians from returning to their homes and livelihoods.

The effects of the war are still reflected in a massive drop in the country’s GDP. Most of Syria’s current situation, therefore, points to a state that has reached the edge of an abyss. Even if some economic activities are ticking over, 2018 World Bank figures depict an economy that has shrunk to 20% of its pre-2011 level of activity.

The external players that have backed forces in the contest may be getting tired, but all profess a continued commitment to outcomes that are becoming increasingly forlorn as the war grinds on. By no stretch of the imagination can the external powers and funders get 100% of their dreams—the Salafists’ supporters in the Gulf; Iran and its local proxies; Turkey and its phobia at the prospect of a Kurdish superstate; or the US, which clearly lacks any achievable goal.

Russia isn’t on that list because it has been playing a long game that goes back to before the collapse of the USSR. Its involvement is costing it, but its aim is relatively viable—an outcome that will preserve Syria as a basically secular state, multi-ethnic and with its territorial integrity restored.

In contrast, Western powers, by basing their response to the Syrian conflict on a shopping list of morally worthy but totally unrealisable demands, have only prolonged the country’s agony. Sanctions adopted in a number of EU and multilateral bodies were never fit for purpose. In other cases, sanctions have been an effective weapon against national entities that have proper banking systems and effective frontier controls. They are dangerously counterproductive if they simply hand a society over to racketeering elements that use sanctions-busting as a means of reinforcing alliances with internal power structures.

The daily outbreak of confrontations in the Gulf makes the task of winding down wider regional tensions even harder. The US, having brought on a crisis with Iran by withdrawing from the nuclear deal, now risks hair-trigger miscalculations if President Donald Trump again veers impulsively towards his hardline advisers. John Bolton and Mike Pompeo have long been itching to find a casus belli to pursue the decades-old vendetta against Iran.

Syria is now the centre of a web of catastrophic decisions whose aftermath is still to be played out. Only those countries that are prepared to look at the long term, accept the need to restore Syria as an integral state (rather than see it broken up into religious or ethnic cantonments) and avoid short-term posturing can aspire to have any positive influence.