There were no significant changes for the Syrian people in 2021, and there was no progress in the crisis that has been tearing the country apart over the last decade. Despite a drop in the intensity of the fighting, both the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and the opposition are worried about what will come next and what the countries intervening in the conflict are planning for the next stage.
The opposition began 2021 with the hope that the world would pressure the Syrian regime and its allies to move forward with a political solution to the crisis based on UN Security Council Resolution 2254. This would bring the country a step closer to the dream of a pluralist and democratic state not controlled by the security agencies and not in the hands of one family or sect.
The regime began 2021 with the hope that it could convince the world that it has been victorious militarily in the conflict, that the opposition are terrorists, that it has not committed crimes against humanity, and that it must be recognised as the legitimate Syrian government and reintegrated into the international order. It also wants funds to be allowed to flow into Syria for post-conflict reconstruction.
Neither side has achieved its goals. The opposition is weak and ineffective, and its international support is fragmented. It has remained dependent on external support without mustering influence within the country. The regime has failed to convince the West that it can be reintegrated into the international order, and its propaganda has failed to reverse the West’s outlook.
The Syrian quagmire remains one of the most complicated issues on the international stage today in terms of the humanitarian tragedy in the country, the international refugee problem, the political tensions and the clash of regional and international interests in the Middle East. Syria is a battleground for five regional forces and major world powers, and the crisis in the country remains a threat to the entire region.
“It is rare for a regime to remain in power without change for an entire decade under the kind of circumstances seen in Syria today,” said Syrian commentator Mounir Shahood. “The regime is boasting of its steadfastness and resilience, ignoring the fact that this has been due to external factors and has come at the expense of the country itself.”
“The regime is ruling a dilapidated country on the brink of starvation through the use of the security forces, deepening the divisions in society,” he said.
There were indications in 2021 that the international community intends to rehabilitate the regime despite the horrors that have occurred in Syria over the last decade. The US Biden administration approved an agreement allowing Egyptian gas and electricity to be delivered to Lebanon through Jordan and Syria, violating the US Caesar Act putting sanctions on Syria.
Washington has not objected to Syria’s return to Interpol, the international police organisation, which the opposition worries the regime will use to demand the arrest of opposition members. Several senior US officials have also visited Syria and met with regime members, with Washington being content to say that “we do not encourage the normalisation of relations” with the Syrian regime.
The US Treasury has made exemptions for some activities to continue in Syria despite the sanctions, including allowing NGOs to deal with the regime. Some believe that the Biden administration is no longer interested in Syria, though towards the end of the year Washington said it would not normalise relations with the Syrian regime.
US envoy to Syria Ethan Goldrich said that lifting the sanctions against Damascus was not on the table in the recent US talks with Russia. He said that the US was against normalising ties with the regime and was only making exceptions for humanitarian purposes.
Visits by Arab officials have also not led to normalising relations between their countries and Syria or brought Syria back into the Arab League. The Arab countries expect the latter step can be made if followed by the Syrian regime’s facilitating the passage of humanitarian aid, releasing prisoners, allowing the return of refugees and making progress on the political process.
“It will be difficult to rehabilitate Al-Assad,” said Syrian commentator Saeed Moqbel. “Neither the US nor Europe will be able to face the world if they accept a murderous regime whose crimes are well known,” he added.
“From a moral standpoint, it would be difficult to rehabilitate the regime even without looking at the issue from the global political and security perspectives. The regime wants to give the world the impression that it is close to being widely accepted on the international stage. But this will not happen without genuine political change.”
Meanwhile, the opposition has had few successes in making its case better known. International interest has not increased, and the opposition has not been able to make a dent in the Constitutional Committee assigned by the UN to draft a new constitution. It has remained fragmented due to diverging ideologies, interests and supporters.
The opposition continued to attend meetings of the Constitutional Committee in 2021, including the sixth round of talks. It has remained proactive in its desire to make progress on a new constitution, and it has accepted some proposals by the regime about constitutional principles. However, on the last day of the sixth round of the talks, the regime delegation rejected all the ideas discussed, returning to Damascus with little care for international opinion.
While the opposition has been unable to force the regime to respect UN resolutions or make progress in the constitutional process, this is because the international community has not put pressure on the Syrian regime and its Russian ally to forge ahead with drafting a new constitution.
Iran has also made gains in Syria in 2021. It has converted its military influence into societal penetration by manipulating demographics and spreading Shiism, trying to gradually take control of an already fragile economy.
As the Syrian conflict approaches its 11th year, there is no solution in sight. There can only be a solution if Russia and the US reach an agreement as part of a solution based on UN Security Council Resolution 2254, the opposition says.
“The language used during the war is no longer relevant, and the words ‘regime’ and ‘opposition’ mean nothing now,” Shahood said. “No one has won this conflict, and Syria will never return to how it was. It is currently governed by delicate regional and international balances that are difficult to determine,” he added.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.