Much of the world seems to have forgotten about Syria’s savage 10-year-old civil war still capable of igniting and wreaking havoc across the Middle East – and Europe.
The international appeasement that took hold after the defeat of Isis is misplaced. The same goes for the idea that fragile neighboring states such as Lebanon, Jordan and even Turkey can be bought indefinitely to serve as pens for 6 million Syrian refugees and funnels for aid to 6. million displaced Syrians.
The precursor of Isis in Iraq is reborn in Syria after being reduced to 600 combatants; security experts estimate it still has up to 40 times that number, enough for a resurgence in two decaying states. Europe, as well as the Middle East, should know from bitter experience that jihadist cutthroats are not confined to the battlefields of Iraq and Syria.
Yet it seems that it takes a long time to learn even the most basic lessons from this tragedy.
The World Health Organization, a UN agency, has just elevated Bashar al-Assad’s government to its board. In the decade leading up to February, this murderous regime attacked and in many cases destroyed around 600 hospitals and clinics, physically dragging doctors underground.
The Assads, backed by patrons such as Vladimir Putin’s Russia, have proliferated the fiction that they are a secular bulwark against religious extremism. In fact, they are incubators of poisonous forces to which they offer themselves as an antidote. The regime emptied jihadist prisons in 2011, betting they would hijack the predominantly Sunni rebellion; just as they had fomented sectarianism in Lebanon and channeled Sunni extremists into US-occupied Iraq – as the midwife of the precursor of Isis.
Assad was trapped in a shrunken rump state until first Iran and then Russia came to his aid. Now he has reclaimed around 70% of Syria, although entire swathes are held by warlords and racketeers allied with the regime. The rest by jihadists, Kurdish militias allied with the United States and Turkey in four northern enclaves.
The country is in ruins. Russian and Syrian bombings have reduced cities like Aleppo and Homs to rubble. Most of the more than 500,000 dead were civilians.
The institutions as they existed have collapsed. A rare operating unit of the army, the Fourth Armored Division led by Maher al-Assad, the volatile younger brother of the president, provides cover for trade and abuses carried out by mafias and militias.
Half the population has been displaced, many for good. The labor-strapped Alawite minority regime liked the new demographics and allowed war profiteers to expropriate refugee property. Along with the Covid-19 emergency that it cannot cope with, famine is looming over Syria.
Assad organized another ridiculous election last month, emerging with 95% of the vote. Despite his pomp, he is the ward of three states: Russia, Iran and Turkey. US President Joe Biden will meet Putin next week in Geneva and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the NATO summit in Brussels. The United States urges Iran to relaunch the 2015 nuclear restriction agreement. Syria is on all their tables.
It’s dangerous ground for Biden, but it’s time to insist that the Assads are a place of instability. The only way forward is a new regional deal, led by big rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, and an externally agreed security architecture.
This could unlock reconstruction funds that Arab Gulf countries could benefit from as they diversify away from oil. It may sound more like a mirage than a vision. The alternatives are all bloody.