The civic uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s hereditary tyranny in Syria, which has turned into a savage civil war that still rages and radiates chaos in the Middle East and Europe, began 10 years ago this week .
Syria is really three conflicts: the minority Assad regime which is waging an all-out war against its own people; an ethno-sectarian conflict in which the Iranian-led Shiite axis has taken ground against the Sunni majority in Syria; and a regional war in which outside powers – including Russia, Iran, Turkey and the United States – have used Syria to pursue their own interests.
The recklessness of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 sowed proxy wars between Sunnis and Shiites throughout the region and made jihadism proliferate. The recklessness of Western powers pressuring Syrian rebels but outsourcing and supplying armaments to the Gulf and Turkey helped ensure that traditional Sunni rebels would be overwhelmed by Islamists.
The Assads and their apologists have nourished the alibi that they are a secular bulwark against extremism, rather than incubators of poisonous forces to which they present themselves as the antidote. They emptied Syrian prisons of veteran jihadists in 2011, betting they would deflect the rebellion, just as they had instigated sectarianism in Lebanon and channeled Sunni extremists into US-occupied Iraq.
The rebels nevertheless came close to overthrowing the regime in 2012, 2013 and 2015. Assad was trapped in a shrinking rump state until first Iran and then Russia came to his aid. Today, he has reclaimed around 70% of Syria, although entire swathes are held by warlords and racketeers allied with the regime.
The price is awful. Russian and Syrian airstrikes and artillery have reduced cities like Aleppo and Homs to rubble. Most of the more than 500,000 dead were civilians, massacred by barrel bombs and ballistic missiles, starvation and siege, nerve gas and other chemical weapons, targeting markets, schools and more than 800 medical facilities . Half the population has been displaced, many for good. The labor-strapped minority regime liked the new demographics and allowed war profiteers to effectively expropriate refugee property. In addition to the Covid-19 emergency, famine is raging in Syria.
The complacency in the face of the defeat of Isis and his cross-border caliphate is misplaced. Its predecessor in Iraq is reborn in Syria after being reduced to 600 combatants; security experts estimate it now has up to 40 times that number, enough for a resurgence in two decaying states. Europe, as well as the Middle East, know from bitter experience that jihadist cutthroats are not confined to the battlefields of Iraq and Syria.
What about the future of Syria? Assad, despite his conceited pride, is the neighborhood of three states: Russia, Iran, and Turkey – with the United States half in and half out of the arena. The Syrian president, source of instability, blocks a new constitution pushed by Moscow which could put a brake on his despotic power. Turkey, with a neo-Ottoman nostalgia, took four enclaves in northern Syria to push the Kurds allied with the United States from its borders. Russia and Turkey, moreover, continue to come to blows. Paradoxically, would Iran be more affordable?
US President Joe Biden wants to reverse the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran that Donald Trump tore up. And then, along with Iran’s neighbors, strive to curb the efforts of its missiles and militias to forge an axis of Shiite power across the Levant and into the Gulf. This axis is in fact now an arc of failed states – Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen – which Tehran and its proxies are struggling to control.
Any solution would need a new regional understanding and security architecture, followed by massive reconstruction that Arab Gulf players could benefit from as they diversify away from oil. Right now, it looks more like a mirage than a vision. This does not mean that there is a viable alternative.