Syria’s war enters seventh year with no end to the carnage
The Syrian war lurches into its seventh ghastly year on March 15th with much of the country in ruins, its economy decimated and half its population dead, missing or homeless. Syria is probably facing disintegration into sectarian and ethnic entities, vivid testimony to the unfolding transformation of much of the Middle East.
There is no sign that the fighting, a confusing melee of several separate conflicts, including regional confrontations as well as internal Syrian rivalries, is anywhere near ending.
Even so, Yezid Sayigh, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Centre in Beirut, observed: “The Syrian conflict, which long seemed interminable, has entered its final phase. It is far from over… and a formal negotiated settlement remains a remote prospect…
“The only possible consolation is that a genuinely broad political opposition, grass-roots social activism and new cross-sectarian and cross-ethnic coalitions cannot revive without an end to the armed conflict.
“How this may unfold is hard to predict or guarantee, but it is fast emerging the only hope for future change in Syria,” Sayigh wrote in a February 16th analysis.
The turning point in the war was Russia’s military intervention in September 2015 that saved the dynastic regime of President Bashar Assad from imminent defeat. That complicated an already bewilderingly complex conflict and thrust it into a new global dimension.
Russia’s military firepower, primarily its air and missile forces, and its diplomatic influence in the UN Security Council, heightened the flood of war refugees from the Middle East into a tidal wave of human misery swamping Europe and threatening its unity, a destabilisation that fed into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategic game plan.
A ceasefire brokered by Russia, Iran and Turkey has been in place since November 30th but it is so perforated as to be meaningless.
Russia, having rescued Assad and his cronies, clearly wants to find an accommodation with the major parties and pull out its troops.
Iran, Assad’s other key ally, is in Syria to stay to further its strategic expansion from the Gulf to the Mediterranean.
Neither can it easily pull out of Syria because Assad’s dynasty would surely go under simply because his military forces have been dangerously depleted due to battle losses, large-scale defections and draft-dodging. The Assad regime cannot even control the territory it holds, let alone win back on its own the vast areas held by jihadists and other rebel forces.
Assad can only claim control of about 35% of Syria, mainly in the centre and the west. The energy-rich east and the agricultural heartland in the north are held by his myriad enemies.
There are disturbing signs that the war is taking on new dimensions, drawing outside powers ever deeper into a conflict that seems to constantly change complexion and threaten wider turmoil.
Turkey, driven by the strategic ambitions of its increasingly autocratic president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, invaded northern Syria in August 2016, ostensibly to crush the Islamic State (ISIS) but largely to prevent Syrian Kurds establishing an independent state on Turkey’s southern border while Ankara struggles with its own separatist Kurdish minority.
The global war against ISIS overlaps with Syria’s own bloodletting even as Turkey’s inroads threaten to ignite new sectarian conflicts in northern Syria where rival jihadist groups are battling for supremacy.
There are growing signs of discord between the three outside powers that effectively control both the war and the quest for a peace settlement.
US President Donald Trump’s deployment in early March of 200 US Marines with artillery around the flashpoint town of Manbij in northern Syria indicated a more muscular US involvement in Syria that could enflame the multilayered conflict.
The key element in what comes next is whether Assad remains in power. The rebels want him and his autocratic regime gone. Russia and Iran want to keep him in place for their own strategic purposes, although Moscow apparently accepts that in the end there can be no lasting political solution while he remains.
However, the political spectrum in Syria is so fragmented that agreement will be difficult, perhaps impossible, to achieve despite Russia’s drive for a political settlement and a UN-brokered peace initiative.
Assad’s regime, thanks to Russian and Iranian support and the opposition’s crippling disarray, is secure and, thus emboldened, seems determined to militarily crush rebel forces.
The Russians, fearful of becoming snarled in another Afghanistan-style quagmire, are focused on finding a negotiated end to the conflict.
“In the long term, the Syrian government has no intention of making significant concessions to the rebels and intends to build on its current battlefield advantage as long as its foreign support, particularly Iranian, remains strong,” the US-based global security consultancy Stratfor warned in January.
“Given Russia’s determination to exit the conflict and Turkey’s increasingly accommodative stance towards Assad, some minor agreements are within reach but the Syrian conflict will not end in 2017.”
Ed Blanche has covered Middle East affairs since 1967. He is the Arab Weekly analyses section editor.