Perspectives on Geopolitics, History, and Political Economy

Syria 6 years on: What does the future hold?

Originally published on Middle East Monitor

By Nasim Ahmed

When pro-democracy protests started six years ago in Syria’s southern city, Daraa, few would have anticipated that the violent clampdown by the regime would trigger a brutal civil war. Even fewer would have expected it to last more than six years.

While the war has been characteristically unpredictable, it amplified many of the certainties about the country’s weaknesses; political and historical tensions that were gnawing away at its foundation began to tear apart lives and communities. Every demon one could imagine – from the seeds of sectarian tension of the past, blunders of colonial overlords, and decades of misgovernment by the regime, regional political turmoil – were aroused to cause unspeakable destruction.

Most unlikely of all, the conflict sent ripples that shook the political landscape of every continent. The destruction has been biblical in proportion: Half of the country’s 23 million people are displaced; six million as refugees. Their plight has transformed countries near and far. While neighbouring states like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan face the challenge of unprecedented population increase; far away countries in Europe, and not to mention America, have regressed through the rise of anti-immigrant, right-wing populist movements that have exploited the suffering of millions for their narrow, exclusive and bigoted political agenda.

Uncertain future

It seemed so promising six years go. Syrian men, women and children rose up as one body to protest against their oppression. Little did they realise that their hope for a better life would be met with unimaginable horror and misery. Their chant to topple the regime echoed millions of others. Their anger was the anger of the dispossessed. Their fury was the fury of the patient man, reacting to decades of repression. It didn’t turn out the way they expected, as hopes became stifled by the cruel and vengeful return of the deep state. Syria, however, more than any other country, exposed the regions bitter tensions. The conflict’s powerful turbulence dragged every simmering problem towards its violent maelstrom.

Syria’s uncertain future was confounded due to many reasons but none more so than its mutation from the Syrian war to the war in Syria. The war started to become less about Syrians and more about external forces that found an opportunity in the war to expand their power and influence, even if it came at a huge humanitarian cost. The conflict defied even the basic rules of civil war, which in themselves are bloody and brutal. The war may have gone down the route of a typical civil war early in the conflict, when a prolonged standoff was unsustainable. A swift resolution could have been possible, especially if Al-Assad was willing to share power and a third party was committed to maintaining peace and security. Instead, the conflict has ballooned primarily due to foreign intervention.

Foreign interventions prolonged the cycle of violence and prevented the war from taking its natural course. It became stalemate. The country had been turned into a bear pit, made worse by the uncertainty about post-war Syria: as bad as things were, everyone in the bear-pit was able to imagine a much worse scenario if one side gained total victory. The fear of an uncertain political future and the threat of post-victory reprisal pushed rivals to fight even if victory was not assured.

It soon dawned that Syrian’s had changed their country and the world but not the way they would have wanted. Can Syria be patched back together again and do Syria’s, displaced all around the world, even want to return?

No going back

It’s hard to see how Syria can be returned to its pre-war state where a minority religious community ruled over the majority from the centre of Damascus. The country has become a patch work; divided into four main zones: Western and southern regions of Syria have remained in regime control; Much of the eastern areas came under Daesh control; the northern areas were taken over by Kurdish groups while opposition forces have maintained their grip on pockets in the western half of the country around Aleppo, Homs, Damascus and Daraa.

Even if Daesh forces are eliminated from the scene, it’s hard not to agree with the conclusion that that there is no going back for Syria. While state institutions have continued to function and maintain law and order in areas they control, the rest of the country has spun outside the orbit of Damascus in different directions, adopting opposing systems of governance that are becoming increasingly entrenched. Local communities have created their own systems of law and order, set up infrastructure for health, education, social services, security and the economy.

Aleppo, Syria – December 2016: A children at Refugee camp near the village outside Aleppo city in Syria – Editorial credit: Din Mohd Yaman / Shutterstock.com

In most opposition areas, children know of the Syrian state only through the barrel bombs falling from the sky, while in Kurdish areas the youngest are taught only Kurdish and do not speak Arabic, the country’s only official language. There are now at least four different school curriculums taught to Syrian children, and three currencies circulating in relatively large amounts: the Syrian pound, the US dollar, and the Turkish lira – in July 2016, Daesh even reportedly started to mint its own coins.

Maybe decentralisation is inevitable. Maybe Syria can be stitched back together again. Whatever the outcome, Syria is far too important to be left alone for Syrian’s to chart their future. The French and the British knew this better than anyone, when they carved up the region to suit their colonial ambitions 100 years ago. Now, as then, Syria’s fate seems captive to the colonial design of another global superpower; one that wants to return to its past imperial glory.

Having intervened in September 2015 and capitalised on President Barack Obama’s indecisiveness, Russia poured all its weight behind the Assad regime. Moscow’s heavy investment in Syria means that Putin is very unlikely to permit a resolution that goes against its interest; he will want to see some major dividends for propping up the dictator, from the brink of collapse. The conflict has enabled Moscow to gain a foothold in the Middle East after watching the United States call all the shots in the region for decades. Moscow’s influence is such that the previous British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond was reported to have said:

There is one man on this planet who can end the civil war in Syria by making a phone call, and that’s Mr Putin. 

While Russia’s involvement could be put down to projecting influence and regaining its status as a global superpower, Turkey’s interests have been more immediate. Not only has it taken on the highest number of Syrian refugees, three million, it is engaged in military operations against Daesh forces and its erstwhile enemy, Kurdish separatists. The Syrian crises triggered deep anxieties in Ankara as it watched large swathes of the territory in Syria being overrun by groups it calls terrorists.

Unlike Turkey, Iran’s interest in bolstering its client Al-Assad seem to be less to do with immediate security concerns and more to do with maintaining unobstructed Iranian influence from Tehran, through Baghdad along Damascus to Beirut. Without Iran’s help, the Asssad regime would in all likelihood have collapsed. That is why Tehran dispatched senior military figures and pressed its Lebanese client Hezbollah to send fighters to aid the Syrian regime. While both countries are ruled by Shia groups, the religious ties between Alawi Shias and Iranian Shia may however be a secondary factor to the overriding concern of the Mullahs in Tehran who very much see themselves as being surrounded by hostile pro-Western Sunni nations and feel that they need all the allies they can find -Allawi’s in Syria and Houthi’s in Yemen – to ensure that their regional interests are protected.

A picture made available on 21 October 2015 shows Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad entering a hall during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, 20 October 2015. Beleaguered Syrian President Bashar al-Assad travelled to Moscow for talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin revealed on 21 October 2015. Assad and Putin discussed the situation in war-torn Syria on 20 October 2015 evening during the talks that had not been made public in advance, the Kremlin spokesman said. The talks dealt with the ‘fight against terrorist extremist groups’ and with Russian air support for attacks by Syrian troops on the ground. Russia has been carrying out airstrikes in Syria since the end of September. Moscow has declared the so-called Islamic State (IS or ISIS) as the main enemy, but Western nations have accused Moscow of attacking other groups opposed to the Assad regime. EPA/ALEXEY DRUZHINYN/RIA NOVOSTI/POOL

Syria’s fate lies in the hands of Russia, Turkey and Iran being able to work out a deal. With Turkey and western countries softening their position on removing Al-Assad, it seems that any resolution will keep Assad, at least in the short term, as a titular head of the country. Their ability to navigate their different interests will determine how the Syrian gridlock is broken.

Looking beyond the complex maze of conflicting interests, it is nevertheless hard to imagine a scenario where Syria is fractured to the point where autonomous zones emerge into new states, least of all a Kurdistan. Closer proximity between Russia and Turkey is a good indication that this will be an unlikely scenario, and more so because even Iran would resist giving any hope to its Kurdish population of a new Kurdish state.

This maybe one of the main points of agreement between the three major countries especially as relations between Ankara and Moscow seem to have gone from strength to strength; it has even been tested under extreme conditions: It withstood the downing of a Russian jet by Turkey as well as the assassination of Russian ambassador in Ankara. If nothing else, it reflects that both countries see each other as being invaluable to securing their main interests. One assumes that Ankara trusts that Russia will accommodate Turkey’s major concern and block the formation of a separatist Kurdistan in whatever shape or from Syria is patched back together again.

Amid the uncertainties around the future of Syria, the only certainty seems to be that its future rests on the international community’s ability to hold individuals that have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, to account. Stitching the country back together, without addressing the grave injustices and cruelty of the past six years will not be enough to heal the country for a promising future.

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