Every day there are the PR narratives in the Syrian conflict entering its 10th year.

Bashar al-Assad proclaims that he will “regain every inch” of the country. Russia says it is carrying out “anti-terrorist operations”, and Iran is protecting shrines. Turkey pledges that it will avert humanitarian crisis. The US says it is preventing the resurgence of the Islamic State.

All of these are diversions from the reality of Syria, from the facade of Assad’s rule in Damascus to the show of Turkish-Russian patrols in the northeast to the illusory “humanitarian corridors” portrayed by Moscow even as it bombs civilian areas.

That reality begins with the hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians killed, injured, and tortured to death in prison. It continues with the more than 11 million — about half of the country’s population — who have fled their homes, including more than one million now trapped in the northeast between Russia-regime attacks and a closed Turkish border.

And there is a political and military reality around the “biggest humanitarian horror story of the 21st century”, as it is framed by the UN’s head of aid operations Mark Lowcock.

It is the reality that Syria is no longer one country. It is a series of fragmented, often shattered areas.

There is Damascus, where stage-managed videos cannot film over the spiraling prices and shortages that are everyday life for most residents.

There are the devastated buildings and emptied streets of cities, towns, and villages “liberated” by the regime.

There are the autonomous Kurdish cantons in the northeast, threatened by both the Assad regime and Turkey but protected — for the moment — by an American military presence.

There is the embattled opposition territory in Idlib Province, holding out against a 10-month Russian-regime offensive. In the words of an anaesthetist in Idlib city, “We will continue to work until our last breath. If Bashar al-Assad’s forces decide to storm the city, we will be displaced to the camps.”

Beyond their narratives, no one — Assad, Russia, Iran, Turkey, the US — has a strategy to unite these areas. Each can only hope to sustain a position in the country, however decimated it may be.

Showdown in Idlib

Russia’s military intervention from September 2015 prevented the collapse of the Syrian military and Assad’s fall from power. It then enabled the regime, through siege and bombing, to erode opposition areas and reclaim eastern Aleppo city, the Damascus suburbs, and southern Syria.

But it could not bring political or economic stability for the regime’s declaration of “reconciliation”. Propaganda photos display western Aleppo city, but never the east that was reoccupied in December 2016. They do not show Madaya, where scores starved to death during the siege, or Darraya, where a mass killing of civilians in 2012 set a deadly pattern for the conflict. Homs, with its uprising suppressed from 2012 to 2017, is almost erased from view. The PR footage shows one street in Douma, which held out against conventional and chemical attacks until April 2018; it never moves to a second.

Syria’s GDP is still down 75% from its level of March 2011. The cost of reconstruction was put at $200 billion in 2018 and continues to rise. Russia has long searched for an alternative to Assad, realizing that he cannot command support across a reunified Syria, but has not found one.

So after months of maneuvering with and versus Turkey, Moscow decided in April 2019 to enable a pro-Assad offensive in northwest Syria, shattering the Russian-Turkish “de-escalation zone” around Idlib and northern Hama Provinces.

That offensive has killed almost 2,000 civilians and wounded thousands as well as displacing more than a million. It has overrun almost all of northern Hama and part of southern Idlib. At the start of February, the assault occupied Saraqeb, at the junction of the Damascus-to-Aleppo M5 highway and cross-Idlib M4 highway.

But 2/3rds of Idlib, with about 3 million people, has not been captured. And now Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, criticizing Russia by name for the first time, is pledging military action and demanding a regime withdrawal from Idlib by February 29.

Turkey has supplied the anti-Assad Syrian National Army with weapons, including anti-aircraft MANPADS that have already downed regime helicopters. Its infantry have joined rebels on the frontline for the first time, reclaiming the town of Nayrab. The counter-attack is on the verge of moving back into Saraqeb, a major symbolic as well as military setback for Russia and the regime.

The outcome is far from determined. Tobias Schneider, a leading analyst of the conflict, wrote last week that there will be an opposition “collapse following phased offensives“, despite Erdoğan’s rhetoric. But a local, well-placed observer summarized:

Bullying works only as long as the bullied party has ways to retreat. This time Turkey has no other choice than to confront Russia if [Russian President Vladimir] Putin continues.

On February 27, that local observer was proven correct. A day after 36 Turkish soldiers were killed by a Russian or regime strike, Ankara began a devastating bombardment of more than 200 regime targets. Scores of tanks, armored personnel carriers, other vehicles, multiple rocket launchers, and heavy weapons were destroyed or captured. Two regime Russian-made jets and more helicopters were downed.

Judgement Day

Ankara appears to have checked the Russian-regime assault, as it demands the withdrawal of the Assad forces from the frontline. But even if Turkey blinks and the Russian-regime offensive ultimately claims Idlib — like eastern Aleppo city, southern Syria, and East Ghouta before it — what then? Another three million Syrian civilians under Assad’s nominal rule does not mean “reconciliation”, let alone recovery or a political resolution.

Iran, after its essential support propping up the Assad regime from 2011, watches from the sidelines. Tehran’s Revolutionary Guards, Iranian-backed foreign militias, and Hezbollah may have been prominent in previous offensives. The Islamic Republic is part of Russia’s headline “Astana process”, which has not made any advance towards a political resolution since January 2018 but has pushed the US aside.

But Idlib is Russia’s game. Iran’s key tactician in Syria, Maj. Gen. Qassim Soleimani, was killed on January 3 by a US drone strike outside Baghdad International Airport. The Islamic Republic is facing economic crisis, a series of mass protests, and now its failed handling of Coronavirus.

Meanwhile, the US military has pushed back its greatest challenge — Donald Trump’s impulsive orders for withdrawal — to maintain a line in northeast Syria. That in turn has sustained the prospect of Kurdish autonomy, defying Assad’s “every inch” pledge.

Even in regime-held areas, there are signals of disruption each day. In January, Assad passed a decree of 7 years’ hard labor for anyone not using the Syrian pound for payments or commercial transactions. In Damascus, there are “struggles with basic essentials”, “power cuts”, and “gas shortages”: “Corruption and extortion by the government and its militias reportedly permeate every aspect of life for returnees, including the ability to carry out menial tasks, obtain documents, or transport goods to market. Corruption and bribes at checkpoints are a standard practice.”

Before the disastrous US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell warned, “You break it, you buy it.”

But that’s not quite the case in Syria. Russia and Iran are top contributors to the breaking of Syria, but neither — even as they have sought economic advantage — have taken ownership of what is left. Assad’s ownership is more a tale in the regime’s daily propaganda, rather than control of the nation and the people whom he is accused of killing and displacing.

No one owns the broken Syria. Instead, the reality is of the cost extracted each day from the civilians.

“Sara”, a 38-year-old widow and mother of five, fled from Saraqeb as the Russian-regime offensive closed in. She and her children are now with her sister’s family in two bare rooms with 20 people.

“I keep going only for the sake of my children. The situation is so bad, it is like Judgement Day,” she says.