It is unclear when the 2011 protests in Syria transitioned to rebellion and then civil war but there is a general consensus that the war in Syria has now lasted for over seven gruelling years and shows no signs of stopping. It is undeniably complex, an observation shared by every analyst, journalist or commentator on a prolonged and avoidable tragedy that has seen a nation torn apart and its people maimed and killed. It is also notoriously intractable, having become increasingly sectarian in nature and bearing little relation to the government versus opposition rivalry that was the defining characteristic of the conflict in the beginning.
The responsibility for the descent into armed conflict lies firmly at the feet of the Assad regime, which failed to respond to calls for change when the momentum of the Arab Spring reached Syria. Back then, and despite years of autocratic rule, protestors were calling for a better quality of life and for the government to listen to their concerns. They hadn’t called for an end to the Assad regime, but they were questioning the ruling bargain of giving up the freedom of choosing their leaders for security and prosperity. Before long, the regime was offering cosmetic change while calling anyone who challenged it a ‘terrorist’ and meeting dissent with bullets and tanks. The response was so brutal that some of its own military defected and joined the emerging opposition: the mask had slipped, and a regime that was torturing people in the privacy of its prisons now moved to killing them on the streets.
It did not take long for a militarised opposition to develop but it was not what the protestors would have envisaged. While the West prevaricated and assumed that the regime would simply give up, friends in Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia sent money and weapons, but only to their favoured clients. There was no unified military opposition, only a multitude of groups that for a time acted under the banner of the Free Syrian Army but quickly became divided into secularists, various degrees of Islamism, and jihadists. It did not take long for them to fight each other, or for foreigners to join them, but they also began to put the regime on the back foot, and before long the people who supported the government were terrified. This meant that the regime had to leave the Syrian Kurds to their own devices and rely on its Iranian friends to provide support. And they did, propping up the Syrian Arab Army, organising local defence forces, and bringing in their own elite forces and foreign Shia militias. The Lebanese Hezbollah also helped out and Russia was there to back up the regime in the UN Security Council against the Western bloc who criticised Assad but stayed out of it, even when the regime used chemical weapons against its own people (they said they would give them up and not do it again). Israel was also busy, launching airstrikes at Hezbollah and Iranian targets in Syria while not announcing that they had done so.
It didn’t seem like things could get worse, but they did. Jihadists from Iraq entered Syria and after some fighting amongst themselves took control of a swathe of territory across Iraq and Syria and declared a caliphate. Then the West did become involved, with the United States and its allies helping the Kurds in Syria and Iraq to stem the tide. Now the regime really did have some bona fide terrorists to worry about but left much of the task of fighting them to others, while it continued to struggle against a still divided opposition that wanted the regime gone but had differing views on how a future Syria should be governed. So Russia came in firmly on the regime’s side and set about helping them bomb their opponents to smithereens, and to take back the cities from the opposition (who were still fighting each other). Meanwhile, the United States had got the Kurds to join with some friendly opposition groups in taking out ISIS and liberating their self-declared capital of Raqqa, wrecking it in the process. As the endgame for caliphate approached, the regime joined in and took back a large amount of territory. Turkey also joined in, allegedly to fight ISIS, but really because Ankara didn’t want the Syrian Kurds to have a contiguous border with Turkey due to the Turkish-Kurdish conflict re-escalating in Turkey. Sometime during all this the regime used chemical weapons again and the United States fired off cruise missiles at an airbase as punishment (the regime said that someone else had done it to make them look like the bad guys). By this year, the regime had regained enough strength and support to enable it to start tackling the remaining areas held by the opposition in Idlib province and Eastern Ghouta. In a further troubling development Ankara has launched a major operation into the Kurdish held Afrin region, supporting opposition forces as it does so. For its part, Israel launched a series of airstrikes against Syrian air defences after one of its planes was shot down coming back from a raid against Iranian targets. The United States continues to maintain a military presence in Syria and has fought limited battles with pro-Assad forces.
Much has been left out, but this short history points us towards what the Syrian War has become over time: a conflict driven by foreign interests above all else. Had the regime and the opposition been left to themselves they would still have got in a mess, but nowhere near the disaster that has befallen Syria. There is currently no end in sight to what has become a free for all on Syrian soil and is estimated to have killed over half a million people, injured and displaced millions more and smashed the country’s infrastructure outside of the areas that stayed in government hands from the beginning. To be sure, there have been attempts at finding a negotiated solution, but these have all collapsed due to predetermined outcomes that reflect the interests that suit pro-Assad or anti-Assad camps, both domestic and foreign. The only people who should decide on the future governance of Syria are the citizens of the country, should they ever actually get to choose instead of having the warring parties decide for them. We should not give up on finding a solution to the Syrian War, because a mediated one is far preferable to the further carnage in years to come and all wars do reach an end. Complexity and intractability does not mean that we can’t look for a way out, however unlikely it may seem, as failing to do so means to abandon Syria and its people to their fate. One starting point is to stop assuming what a mediated outcome will be before we even start talking, another is to start detaching foreign interests from the hosting of peace negotiations. The former prevents there being a predetermined outcome that one side will automatically reject, the latter will prevent powerful participants in the conflict forcing a solution on others that is more akin to surrender, which they will also reject. Syria is entering an eighth year of hell on earth, we should not give in and assume there will be a ninth.
Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator.