The worst phase in the protracted conflict began with the Islamic Jihadists taking centre stage. In April 2013, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the al-Qaeda in Iraq, declared himself the Caliph of an Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS), seeking to establish a radical Islamic empire in Iraq and Syria. Capturing an area in the Euphrates valley centred on the city of Ar-Raqqah in eastern Syria from where it launched a series of successful operations in both Syria and Iraq, it extended control over a wide swath of territory straddling the Iraq-Syria border.
The group soon attracted global outrage with a series of barbaric beheadings and earned huge amounts of cash through black-market oil sales. The cash and the sophisticated propaganda it launched also attracted new extremists into its fold to carry out terror attacks throughout the Western world ~ among them the bombing of a Russian airplane killing 224 people in October 2015 and a series of coordinated attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015, killing 130 people. Its success galvanised the international community’s efforts; in August 2014, the USA launched air strikes in Iraq to prevent the ISIL from advancing into the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq and to protect the Christian and Yazidi communities there, and then to strike against ISIL targets in Syria.
The summer of 2015 brought Russia into active conflict, first by deploying troops and equipment and then launching air strikes against targets in Syria. Russian officials originally claimed that the air strikes were targeting ISIL, but actually they targeted rebel forces fighting Assad to help him. They unleashed a fierce bombing campaign over the northern city of Aleppo, the second biggest city of Syria after Damascus, held by the rebels since 2012, dropping deadly munitions like cluster bombs and incendiary bombs that killed thousands of civilians till Aleppo collapsed after three months in December 2016. By then, the Assad regime had regained control over most of the country cementing its consolidation of power. By mid-2018, for the first time in five years, it recaptured strategic suburbs surrounding Damascus and also Daraa, the birthplace of the uprising, as well as most of southwest Syria.
Meanwhile the ISIL which looked unbeatable and unstoppable in 2015 was also collapsing under severe assaults by three rival coalitions: Kurdish forces backed by US airpower, pro- Assad Syrian forces supported by Iran and Russia, and a Turkishbacked coalition of rebel groups. By October 2017, the mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) captured Ar-Raqqah, ISIL’s de facto capital in the north. In the east, government forces drove them out of Dayr al-Zawr in November. At its height, the ISIS had held about a third of Syria and 40 per cent of Iraq, but by December 2017, it had lost 95 per cent of its territory, including Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, besides Ar-Raqqah. Since 2015, the coalition forces had carried out more than 10,000 air strikes within Iraq and Syria targeting the ISIS and inflicting heavy losses. The so-called caliphate was practically under siege from every side, but not yet finished. In 2018, the Kurdish SDF captured some key ISIS positions in eastern Syria including the town of Hajin, reducing ISIS territory only to a few villages along the Euphrates River near the Iraq border. The final offensive came in February 2019 when it laid siege on the last ISIS holdout in Baghouz which fell on 23 March 2019, leaving the caliphate without any territory. On 26 October 2019, a US raid on Idlib in Syria killed its leader, finally ending the Baghdadi era of ISIS. But the repatriation and rehabilitation of the militants and their victims and reintegrating them into their communities remain the biggest challenges before the international community.
Syria today is practically split into three separate areas: the northwest controlled by Turkey through the rebel outfit Hayat Tahrir as-Sham (HTS) and the northeast controlled by the USAbacked Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) with Russia exerting influence in both areas, and the government- controlled areas. Numerous international efforts by the UN, Arab League and the EU have failed to bring the conflict to an end. Efforts at diplomacy by the UN at Geneva and Vienna remained repeatedly deadlocked. In 2017, a separate Russia-backed initiative, with Iran and Turkey as partners, launched negotiations in Astana, the Kazakh capital, and Sochi in Russia; this has also failed to break the logjam. Despite holding effective control over large swathes of territory and populations that include at least three million civilians, both HTS and PKK are excluded from the ongoing peace processes. It is a ‘no-war-no-peace’ situation, and the concessions needed to break it are lacking from stakeholders.
As Mona Yacoubian of the US Institute of Peace wrote, “the Syrian conflict could be entering a ‘no peace-no war’ stage, marked by somewhat frozen conflict lines crisscrossing an inherently unstable country.” Frontlines between warring forces have not shifted during the last eight months, and casualties have been at the lowest since 2011. But this ebb in violence and the relative calm is extremely tenuous; serious conflict may erupt anew anytime. The fragile peace negotiated between Russia and Turkey in March 2020 is already showing signs of fraying ever since an October-26 Russian airstrike killed dozens of Turkish-backed Syrian fighters. Absence of diplomatic progress will continue to exact enormous tolls on the civilians, besides worsening the refugee crisis in the shadow of the pandemic.
The civil war in Lebanon has lasted more than 15 years and Syria’s is heading towards its 10th anniversary. At least twice – in 2013 and 2015 – the Assad regime almost looked like collapsing but survived because of its external backers. The country today lies in utter ruins, with annihilation of businesses, hospitals, schools and infrastructure estimated at hundreds of billion dollars. The protracted conflict has spawned one of the worst humanitarian crises the world has ever seen since World War II, with an estimated 400,000 killed, five million fleeing Syria, and seven million more being internally displaced. About 70 per cent of the Syrian population is without access to drinking water, 30 per cent without basic food needs, and 80 per cent lives in poverty. More than 2 million children are out of school. The warring parties refuse to let international humanitarian agencies reach the needy with food and life-saving aids.
The Assad regime continues its brutal hold on power with arbitrary detentions, torture and murder of civilians. Its stubborn unwillingness even to effect cosmetic changes in attitude may tear asunder the fragile calm that seems to prevail now. As Yacoubian says, “The Syrian conflict zone is increasingly enmeshed in an expanding series of interlinked conflicts stretching from Libya to Nagorno-Karabakh. Reflective of wider regional and global disorder, these overlapping conflicts often reverberate across geographic zones, introducing potential ‘wild card’ elements into the already complex Syrian conflict. For example, Russian and Turkish competition in Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh has echoed into the Syrian arena with destabilizing effects.” In a way, it may also have contributed to Brexit, of which a key driver was regaining control of borders to limit immigration.
What started as a non-violent protest in 2011 had quickly escalated into a decade-long, full-blown and brutal proxy-war between foreign powers. Syria remains broken and unreconciled, and the world remains indifferent. Syria’s war has been the most complex conflict to emerge from the 2011 Arab uprisings, but ten years on, by and large, the region’s autocratic façade seems to be intact and prospect of democracy and self-determination far away. The Arab people are demoralised and broken, despite limited successes of recent democratic movements in Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon and Sudan. The haunting images of crying fathers carrying the bleeding bodies of their little children may bring tears but cannot move the world into action.
In June 2013, I was in Cairo on my way to Tunisia on an official visit. Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi ~ the first democratically elected President of Egypt ~ had been in power almost a year but his dictatorial decrees were provoking massive rallies at Cairo’s El-Tahrir Square every week. I wanted to go there but the driver was apprehensive, though no rally was scheduled for that day. At my insistence and promise of some extra payment, he agreed to take me. The iconic Square, synonymous with the Arab Spring revolution, looked almost normal, save a few armoured police vehicles and a group of motorcycle-riding youths carrying revolutionary flags.
A couple of teenage girls were sitting at the edge of the park inside. I approached them and asked if they spoke English. They did, they were university students. I asked them about the protests and revolution. The revolution was being stolen, they said, but the protest would continue, if not on the streets, then inside their hearts where it would continue to burn them. Just a month later, Morsi was overthrown in a military coup and the protest fires indeed got hidden inside the hearts of protesters. Someday they will seek their way out, for sure.
The writer is a commentator, author and academic