A decade ago, in the midst of unprecedented tumultuous uprisings across the Arab world, some Syrian political forces, mainly the Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood of Syria, rose against the rule of President Bashar Al-Assad. What has become known as the “Arab Spring” was the catch phrase to mobilise support for the overthrow of “dictatorial” regimes in the Arab world and settling old political scores.
The domestic upheaval in Syria started peacefully and it drew support from a myriad of international, regional and some Arab powers. On the other hand, the besieged Syrian government had no choice but to bring into the equation both Iran and Russia. Thus, Syria has become a battleground among domestic political enemies and adversaries and, in the meantime, a war theatre between the West, Israel and some Arab allies and partners on the one hand, and Iran, pro-Iranian militias and Russia.
The Syrian political opposition to Assad’s rule had lacked homogeneity from day one. If in the early stages of their uprising there was a certain element of unity, ensuing developments and the ever-changing dynamics of the international and regional confrontation on Syrian territory had torn asunder this façade of unity.
All outside powers and domestic political forces disastrously failed in agreeing on a joint strategy as to how to move forward. At the outset, they were consumed by one objective which was to bring down the Assad regime. However, they lacked agreement on the morning after. The dominant opposition forces, the Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood, wanted the establishment of an embryonic “caliphate”. The secular Syrian opposition would never agree to something of the sort. In addition, the outside powers, all confounded, made a huge miscalculation that tragically backfired on the Syrian people and invited direct Russian military intervention in September 2015 that tipped the scale to the advantage of the Syrian government. The militarisation of the Syrian uprising was the death knell of any genuine democratic aspirations that had existed in the early days of the Syrian uprising.
This militarisation embedded terrorism in Syria and in Iraq in a way that threatened the territorial integrity of both Arab powers as well as the concept of the nation-state itself in the Levant. For a while, it seemed that terrorist groups that enjoyed state support and political cover from some regional and Arab powers were ascendant. The so-called “Islamic State” group successfully controlled huge territories in Syria and Iraq. On 14 June 2014, they entered the second largest city in Iraq, Mosul, after advancing from their base in Syria, and turned it into their capital. The occupation of Mosul was a demarcation line between two distinct stages in the Syria conflict. The period from 2011 till 2014, which proved the bankruptcy of the policies of the ad hoc international, regional and Arab coalition to overthrow the Assad political dynasty from power, and from 2014 till the fall of the “Caliphate”, where the fight shifted to defeat terrorism and annihilate the “Islamic State” terror organisation.
The international coalition that was set up in 2011 shifted gears and metamorphosed into a 60-plus country against the Islamic State group under the leadership of the United States during the second term of former US president Barack Obama.
For the Arab powers who were behind the Syrian uprising, or at least some of them, the Syrian government stopped being the “enemy” and became a partner in fighting the Islamic State group and other terrorist groups like Al-Nusra Front (an Al-Qaeda-affiliated group that changed its name in August 2016 to be more acceptable to some member countries in the initial coalition against the Assad government). This change was in reaction to Resolution 2254 adopted by the UN Security Council in December 2015 which laid out a roadmap towards a transition to democracy in Syria. Five years after its adoption, neither the Syrian government nor its international and regional allies, nor the anti-Assad coalition, have been able to put in motion any such transitional process towards a more open and transparent political system in Syria that could put Syria on the road to democratic rule and good governance. This failure in itself is a requiem for the Syrian uprising, supposing that those behind it and the international powers that had lent it all kinds of material and political support were really committed to establishing a true Syrian democracy.
If the American-led International Coalition to Defeat and Degrade the Islamic State succeeded in carrying out its original objective of defeating the Islamic State group, terrorism as a whole is still entrenched in Syria and some parts of Iraq. The “Islamic State” group itself is still operating underground, waiting for an opportunity to come back when the United States withdraws from Syria. From its standpoint, it is only a question of time.
The legacy of this decade in Syria is a legacy of grave miscalculations that border on indecisiveness and a lack of clarity as to the strategic endgame. The question should never have been to support the overthrow of a well-entrenched regime in Damascus, but should have been how to push the Syrian government and the political opposition to work together towards a more open political system in Syria as a first step towards a fully-democratic form of government in Damascus that is open to all Syrian political forces. To replace secular authoritarian rule with a fascist-leaning Islamist “caliphate” was a non-starter from day one. The Turkish and Qatari role in Syria has changed the political landscape to the detriment of democracy and transparency in Syria.
The miscalculations of the pro-opposition international powers, and their regional and Arab allies, have turned Syria into a quagmire for all powers concerned. The question today is no longer about whether President Al-Assad remains in power or not, but rather how to reintegrate Syria once more into the Arab fold by readmitting it to the Arab League at the next Arab summit scheduled for June in Algeria, and to reengage with the Syrian government once more. Attempts to isolate the Syrian government have utterly failed and there is no denying that the present Syrian regime is here to stay. Obstinacy in keeping failed policies alive will only benefit terrorist groups and destabilise further the Arab system.
It is better late than never.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly