The war in Syria, currently in its eighth year, appears to be moving towards its endgame, though some important issues remain to be resolved. However, they do not include regime change, which was the primary objective of the West-Gulf combine, which started this war in March 2011, at the height of the so-called Arab Spring.
That turned out to be more of an “Arab Winter,” thanks to the West and Gulf (W&G), which hijacked the historic opportunity to destroy Libya, murder Gaddafi, and replace a democratically elected goverment in Egypt by a dictator. However, Syria, led by Bashar al-Assad, remained a thorn in the flesh of many. The Arab Spring appeared to be a good opportunity to get rid of him. In any case, he had been on the hit-list of the US for a long time, as disclosed by Gen. Wesley Clarke, former Supreme Commander of NATO in Europe.
Clarke made this revelation in a public interview in March 2007 [available on Youtube]. Syria [along with Libya, Iran, Sudan, Iraq, Somalia and Lebanon] was identified for regime-change by the US as early as in 2001. So in March 2011, foreign mercenaries, trained, armed, and paid by the W&G [which included the US, UK, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE] started appearing in Syrian towns close to the Syrian-Jordanian border.
Daraa was one of them. The first demonstration in Syria against the Assad regime took place in Daraa in March 2011. Many armed foreign fighters infiltrated the crowds and started shooting at the Syrian security forces, killing more than 80 of them. The Syrians fired back at them, in self-defence. Some demonstrators were caught in the crossfire and killed. This is what the W&G wanted. They announced that “Assad was killing his own people.”
This model of regimechange was later successfully used in March 2014 in Kiev, Ukraine. However, things did not go according to plan in Syria. Assad, who enjoyed the support of the overwhelming majority of his people, did not cave in. Instead, he decided to fight the foreign-backed mercenaries and quickly announced several farreaching political and economic reforms. However, the W&G wanted nothing short of regime change. And thus began a long and destructive war, resulting in the deaths of over half a million people, mostly Syrians, and displacement of around eight million, including five million who fled Syria, and ended up in refugee camps in Turkey and Lebanon.
More than a million of them later undertook a risky journey to Greece, from where they travelled to countries in continental Europe, triggering a refugee crisis in 2015-16. That was when the West started feeling the heat from its misadventure in Syria. The war in Syria, which began in 2011, gathered momentum in the next four years, during which the W&G pumped weapons and jihadi fighters into the country.
They wanted to topple Assad and establish a “Salafist Principality” on the Syrian-Iraqi border. The Syrian government, helped by Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards, was fighting with its back to the wall. The situation became critical by mid-2015 when the regime was faced with the prospect of defeat. By that time Al Qaida [also known as the Nusra Front] and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had entered Syria in strength.
While weapons were funded by the Gulf, fighters and training were supplied by Turkey and the West. It was then that Assad turned to Russia for help, which agreed to do so in September 2015. Syria and Iran are the soft underbellies of Russia, which believed that if Assad were toppled, Iran would be the next target.
The Russian air force intervened in Syria, changing the course of the war. It was not long before the Russians controlled the skies of Syria, and through relentless bombing disrupted the supply lines of the foreign fighters. On the ground, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), helped by Hezbollah and Iranian forces, gradually began the process of re-taking important population centres and other strategic assets.
Aleppo, the largest city in Syria, was taken by the SAA in December 2016. At the UN, Russia and China repeatedly vetoed resolutions which would have authorised direct Western intervention in Syria. They had learned a bitter lesson in Libya. Other victories followed, and by 2018, all major cities and provinces in Western Syria [except Idlib] were under the control of Assad’s forces. It became clear that regime-change was not going to happen in Syria.
The West had failed to achieve its main objective. And therein lies the strategic importance of the Syrian war. This was the first time that the US and its allies were militarily defeated by the Syrians, Russians, Iranians, and Hezbollah in a war. However, the war is not yet over. The province of Idlib, home to tens of thousands of Haii Tahrir al Sham (HTS), formerly Nusra Front and Al Qaida, and other jihadi fighters, is not under the control of Assad’s forces.
Almost one-third of Syria, east of the Euphrates river, is controlled by the US with the help of the Syrian Kurds, who are their foot-soldiers. This is the area where most of Syria’s oilfields are located. Russia has set in motion the “Astana Peace Process,” under which Russia, Iran, and Turkey hold regular consultations to demilitarise the hotspots in the country and restore Syria’s territorial integrity. The restoration of Idlib to the government is currently being negotiated. It may take some more time, but Assad is determined to recover it from the militants.
Even though Trump has announced the withdrawal of US forces from Syria, so far only a partial withdrawal has taken place. The Kurdish areas in north-eastern Syria are controlled by the US and Turkey, which has inserted some of its armed forces in the region, in the hope of annexing it. The Syrians are determined to recover these areas and Russia has emphatically reaffirmed Syria’s territorial integrity. It remains to be seen how and when they eject the US and Turkey from Syria.
The war in Syria is one of the biggest and most important wars of the 21st century, resulting in untold death and destruction. It also marks an inflexion point in contemporary geopolitics. The two most powerful countries in the world ~ the US and Russia ~ fought a semi-proxy war, prompting one expert to call it “World War III,” on a limited scale. India provided diplomatic support to the internationallyrecognised Assad government throughout the war.
The Indian embassy continued to function in Damascus.The then MoS for External Affairs MJ Akbar visited Damascus in August 2016. However, Indian oil companies, which were operating in eastern Syria, are awaiting the return of normalcy to resume their operations. The reconstruction of Syria, estimated to cost around $250 billion, has begun. Indian companies would do well to explore economic opportunities in Syria, just as Russian, Iranian, and Chinese companies are doing.
(The writer is a former ambassador of India who has served in several countries around the world, including Syria. Views are personal)