The state of the conflict in Syria and why there will be no resolution this year

Published in partnership with The Conversation:

The Syrian conflict is close to its eighth year. Some commentators, and indeed governments and leaders, have tried to close it off with proclamations of the defeat of the Islamic State. Others have made the simplistic judgement call that the Assad regime is nearing triumph.

They are wrong. If the world’s attention has turned away from the hundreds of thousands dead and the millions bombed, displaced, and starved under siege, it is not because of a resolution. Instead, it is because — in place of resolution — there is not one Syria but several areas in a fragmented country.

A review of those areas and what may happen to them in 2018….

The Regime

The Assad regime has recovered from the brink of defeat in summer 2015, thanks to the intervention of Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and other foreign militias. It exercises nominal control over most of Syria’s cities and much of the population still in the country.

Russia’s interjection of air power firstly removed the prospect of a rebel takeover of Damascus and secured the line from the capital to Homs and Latakia in the west on the Mediterranean. In 2016, a rebel drive on Hama was blunted. Then, after molnths of bombing led by the Russians, a suffocating siege, and even chemical weapons, the regime reoccupied all of Syria’s largest city Aleppo in December 2016.

Since then, pro-Assad forces and the “surrender or starve” tactics have regained most Damsacus suburbs and the final opposition area of HOms. With the US and allies cutting off all support to rebel factions, the pro-Assad offensives have also taken opposition territory in southern and central Syria. Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, working with regime troops and militias, have also cleared the Islamic State from the ancient city of Palymyra in central Syria, pushed it away from Aleppo, and then moved north and east to the Iraqi border.

Yet these headline advances are far from the “victory” proclaimed by Assad, his ally Vladimir Putin, and even the Western media. It still does not have control of much of the country from southern areas near the Jordanian border to the holdout East Ghouta area near Damascus to almost all of Idlib Province in the northwest and Kurdish-held territory in the north and east, including most of Syria’s oil and gas fields.

And in the areas that it holds, even Aleppo, the regime faces long-term challenges to any control, let alone legitimacy. With much of Syria damaged by the conflict and a loss of 75% of GDP, Assad needs billions in reconstruction assistance. Depleted for years, the regime’s armed forces rely on Russia, which has now confirmed a permanent military presence, and Iran to maintain a hold on retaken areas. While far from isolated in the Arab world and shielded by Moscow from approbation, the regime is far from restoring secure diplomatic relations, at least if Bashar al-Assad remains in power.


Photo: Michael Klimentyev/EPA

The Opposition

The prospect of the opposition removing the Assad regime, or even getting a political settlement for its representation in a national Government, is long gone. Russia and Iran quashed that ambition, aided by countries like the US who were pushed or moved to the margins and by backers of the opposition like Turkey who chose co-operation with Moscow. The death knell came with Aleppo’s fall.

Now the opposition’s goal is to hold those areas which it governs. These include Idlib Province, captured in spring 2015, and northern Aleppo Province, taken from the Islamic State by a Turkish-supported rebel offensive in summer and autumn 2016. Rebels are still resisting the Assad regime’s bombardment and siege of Eat Ghouta, with almost 400,000 residents. Whlie the Southern Front has been abandoned by the US-led operations center, it still has parts of Dara’a Province, including a share of Dara’a city, where the uprising began in March 2011.

Beyond the threat of pro-Assad offensives and sieges, the opposition is also confronted by the rise of the hardline Islamist bloc Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. HTS was created in January 2017 and includes the faction Jabhat al-Nusra, involved in the Syria conflict since 2012 and formerly linked to Al Qa’eda. Throughout 2017, HTS seized the military initiative from other factions, notably Ahrar al-Sham, in Idlib Province. It is now trying to run civil affairs through a Syria Salvation Government, challenging local councils under the opposition’s Syrian Interim Government.


Standing amid the destruction in East Ghouta (Nour Adam)

The Kurds

The conflict has given Syria’s Kurdish groups, notably the Kurdistan Democratic Unionist Party (PYD), the opportunity to pursue authority, particularly in their Kobani and Cezire cantons in northeast Syria along the Turkish and Iraqi borders.

Having survived the Islamic State’s onslaught in 2014-2015, marked by the defense of Kobani city, the Kurds have since staked their claim with the defeat of ISIS. In autumn 2015, the US swtiched its support from rebels to the newly-created Syrian Democratic Front, led by the PYD’s militia YPG. The SDF’s reach, culminating in the takeover of Raqqa city from the Islamic State in October 2017, now extends from eastern Aleppo Province — where it faces both pro-Assad and rebel frontlines — across Raqqa and Hasakah Provinces to the eastern Deir ez-Zor Province, where it is adjacent to advancing pro-Assad units supported by Russia.

The PYD/YPG ascendancy is far from secure, both with supposed allies and prospective foes. For now, the US is continuing to supply arms and special forces, but it is wary of Turkey’s hostility to the SDF and Russia’s backing of the Assad regime against a “federal” Syria. The regime, unsettled by the Kurdish hold on valuable assets such as oil and gas fields, has promised a showdown if there is no SDF withdrawal.

And now Ankara has delivered on its promise of a campaign against the Afrin canton in the northwest and on other Kurdish-held areas such as the city of Manbij.

What Lies Ahead

The political process led by Russia since 2016 has reached the proclamation of “de-escalation zones” covering opposition territory from the northwest to the south.

However, this is in name only. Pro-Assad forces — including, in some cases, Russian warplanes — have defied the zones with ongoing attacks and sieges. In December, the assault finally completed the capture of an opposition pocket near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The months-long effort to starve and bombard East Ghouta into submission continues. The campaign for the big conquest, the recapture of Idlib Province in the northwest, has started.

Russia is still calculating the extent of its support for Bashar al-Assad’s personal rule, as opposed to suport for an ongoing regime with another figure as President. Moscow’s intervention has its costs in demands on a fragile economy, in political capital, and even in slain personnel, which is why Vladimir Putin declared a token “withdrawal” in December — just before Russia confirmed the permanence of its naval base at Tartous in western Syria. Moscow would like to share the burden of the billions needed for reconstruction, but the international community is likely to balk at a cheque for the status quo of a blood-soaked regime.

Assad holds the trump card of There is No Alternative. So he and his inner circle press the deamnd for the overrunning of all opposition territory before they will go into meaningful political negotiations. Iran, fully committed to Assad as the marker of its military, political, and economic investment, agrees. And so Russia for now walks step-by-step into the next phase of attacks from northwest Syria to the Damascus suburbs, using the pretext of a necessary campaign against the “terorrists” of the hardline Islamist HTS.

That still does not mean a final capitulation of the opposition or the Kurds. There are other dynamics to be considered beyond the resistance of rebels who have held out for years in some cases, despite the withdrawal of external support. Turkey is invested alongside rebels in parts of the northwest. Israel is wary of Iran and Hezbollah on the border of the Golan Heights. And even if the Kurds give up their hold on oil and gas fields, and even as they face Turkey’s military intervention, their pursuit of autonomous rule in at least a share of Syrian Kurdistan will continue.

Rather than a unitary Syria, we are likely to see the slow turn of the kaleidoscope with more of the deadly same. The bombing. The shellings. The sieges, starvations, and deaths from treatable medical conditions. The Russian-backed disinformation campaign to smear medics and rescuers as puppets of both Al Qa’eda and the US. The political gatherings which offer little more than empty pronouncements.

The ConversationAnd so it goes.