What began as protests demanding reform and the lifting of the heavy hand of the security agencies in Syria in 2011 has mushroomed over the past decade into a long and bitter conflict with the involvement of intertwining domestic, regional and international interests. The demands of the people have been ignored, and the international community has forgotten the root causes of the original protests. Meanwhile, the Syrian people have endured colossal human and material losses, the greatest in the past 50 years, according to UN figures.
During the first year, the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad dealt with the peaceful protests with enormous brutality, causing them to escalate into a full-scale uprising and then a revolution widely supported by the Arabs and the international community. In the second year, however, the revolution was militarised, and the violence escalated, followed by immense human and economic losses. The Syrian state and society were impacted on all levels, and the conflict became a civil war involving Syrians and non-Syrians alike.
Syrian opposition figure Saeed Moqbel commented that “Bashar Al-Assad has been ruling Syria as if the country and everything in it are his personal possessions. He has exercised sectarian and discriminatory policies against the people, greatly harming national unity and stripping away the country’s demographic identity. He has tried to seize legitimacy by force, tyrannising the people and destroying the state. This is a regime that does not believe in freedom or democratic solutions and that will never abandon its despotic ways.”
Since the Syrian people have been unable to resolve their political troubles, various scenarios involving international powers have come to the fore. Along with neighbouring Turkey, there are many other players in Syria today, including Iran, Russia, the US, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, many of which are likely to play an important role in deciding the country’s future. Israel has avoided being directly involved, even though it has influenced the course of the crisis and wants to see an unstable Syria swamped with difficulties.
The Syrian regime did not collapse due to support from Iran and then from Russia. Al-Assad and his regime have remained at the helm, trying to govern a country that is teetering on the brink of becoming a “failed state” even in security and military terms. Today, the regime only controls a portion of the country’s territory, while Turkey and the US control others. Iran and its militias control other parts, though these are diminishing as the US puts more pressure on Tehran.
Over the past decade, various peace and political-reform initiatives have been proposed by the Arabs that the Syrian regime has rejected out of hand, severing its ties with most Arab countries. The UN stepped in and has proposed other initiatives, including the Geneva Conference, UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and the Constitutional Committee, but none of these have succeeded. Russia has also led several initiatives and aims to tailor a political solution that serves the regime. However, these Russian attempts have all failed to find a solution to the crisis.
All the major players in Syria assert that they are invested in finding a political solution that will maintain the integrity and borders of the country, despite disputes over issues such as power-sharing, democratic representation and central government. Yet, in 2012, armed groups began pouring into Syria from abroad, carving up the country among warring rivals that reflected the interests of their financiers and supporters. Governance, security, judicial and educational structures in every region now reflect the ideology of those in control of them, and a socio-economic war has broken out on the margins of the military war, with various warlords digging in their heels.
With help from Russia, which sent its troops into Syria in 2015, the Syrian regime was able to regain control of most of the country with the exception of the Idlib province in northwest Syria, which is the stronghold of the Turkey-backed Syrian opposition, and northeast Syria under Kurdish control with US backing. Some pockets are controlled by the Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), formerly the Al-Nusra Front, which is listed as a terrorist organisation.
In 2012, the ruling Syrian Baath Party lost much of its notional influence after Al-Assad issued a new constitution without the article proclaiming “the leadership of the Baath Party of state and society.”
The new constitution gives further powers to the president, and to sweeten the pill, political pluralism was allowed, creating innocuous parties under the thumb of the security agencies. The latter have been given leeway without accountability, and Al-Assad continues to obstruct political solutions that do not serve his interests.
Areas under opposition control were subjected to informal mixed governance. The opposition formed an interim government in the north, and local councils relied on networks that operated intermittently, increasing the ongoing fragmentation and causing international donors to step back. Continued human-rights violations, war crimes and a lack of accountability have undermined attempts to achieve a sustainable peace.
A 2018 UN human-rights report said that civilians were being deliberately targeted in the conflict in Syria using illegal and brutal methods. The violations included destroying civilian infrastructure, medical facilities, schools and markets. Mass detentions, forced disappearances, torture and abuses against children reached unprecedented levels.
The Syrian conflict has become an international issue, and international players have gained great influence. However, efforts to rebuild the country vanished when Washington linked reconstruction to a political solution and warned the international community to shelve the issue until tangible steps were taken.
The opposition weakened, as did the government, which caused the regime to raise taxes and control the flow of humanitarian aid. The economy collapsed, the value of the Syrian lira went into freefall and hunger spread across the country.
Several parallel peace processes got underway under international sponsorship, including by the US. The UN sponsored the Geneva Process in 2012, and Russia launched the Astana Process in 2017 with a focus on military and security issues. In 2015, UN Security Council Resolution 2254 was adopted as an alternative to the Geneva Process with lower expectations. In 2019 and 2020, the process lost momentum due to domestic and international developments including increased sanctions by the US and Turkey taking control of northern Syria.
Despite multiple peace initiatives, the instability has continued until today. The probability that the conflict would worsen remained although military operations declined across the country. Much hope has hung on the Constitutional Committee created by the UN in 2019 to draft a new constitution for the country. However, the committee has met just four times, and it has not even taken preliminary steps towards penning a new constitution.
Sanctions have taken their toll on Syrian society, and the war economy has worsened, with the continued accumulation of illegal wealth. There are some 5.5 million Syrian refugees, mostly located in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. Many of them live below the poverty line and under harsh socio-economic conditions. According to UN sources, there are more than 11.7 million people in Syria, five million of whom are children, who need at least one form of humanitarian aid.
The country’s healthcare facilities have deteriorated, and 48 per cent of the population are unable to receive medical attention. Some 15.5 million Syrians lack regular access to potable water, while thousands of schools have been destroyed, and more than one million children are not attending school since more than 140,000 teachers have lost their jobs. Syria will grapple with an entire lost generation in the future.
Commenting on the sanctions and how they brutalise the population, dissident Syrian diplomat Bashar Al-Haj Ali said that the “sanctions did not cut off the livelihood of the regime. They used them to oppress and humiliate the people and bring them to their knees. The regime was protected from punishment by repeated Russian vetoes in the UN Security Council, and it has been immune from accountability for using chemical weapons, committing war crimes, and crimes against humanity.”
“The regime continues to steal from humanitarian agencies, most notably the UN, the International Red Cross and the International Red Crescent, and it will continue to evade punishment unless there is an international mechanism based on Chapter VII of the UN Charter, namely, the use of force to implement international resolutions,” Al-Haj Ali said.
Over the past decade, unemployment in Syria has shot up to 55 per cent and 75 per cent among young people. Women have been plagued by gender-based violence, tolerance has decreased and persecution based on identity, ideology, religion and race has increased. Poverty levels have risen to nearly 40 per cent, and much of the population now lives on less than $1.90 a day. The sharp social and economic downturn has resulted in a steep decline in the middle class.
“Among the major problems are the refugees, demographic changes, poverty, the foreign military presence, the regime’s rejecting any political solution it disagrees with, Israel’s security, Russian expansionism, Iran’s sectarian ambitions, Washington’s ambitions, Turkey’s intention to secure its border at the expense of Syria and everyone’s desire to control energy resources. All these factors make a political solution very difficult,” Moqbel said.
Some 35 per cent of Syrian territories are controlled by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian arm of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is listed as a terrorist group by the US and Turkey. Almost all of the country’s water, agricultural and especially oil resources are controlled by the PYD.
“The Syrian people have lost confidence and feel betrayed. The majority of Syrians believe in a conspiracy against them, which ironically was the first accusation hurled by Al-Assad at the peaceful unarmed protesters who rose up against him at the beginning of the revolution. But the conspiracy is not against the regime, but against the freedom of the people and the democracy they sought,” Al-Haj Ali said.
A decade after the conflict in Syria began, there are no winners or losers. What is needed is a new social contract and forging ahead on a consensual process based on UN Security Council Resolution 2254 that guarantees a transition to a plural and democratic country. The country’s political institutions must be restructured to erase the remnants of conflict and sectarianism, which will likely continue for decades if such steps are not taken.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly