The civic uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s hereditary tyranny in Syria, which turned into a savage civil war that still rages and radiates chaos across the Middle East and Europe, began 10 years ago this week.
Syria is really three conflicts: the minority Assad regime waging total war on its own people; an ethno-sectarian conflict in which the Iran-led Shia axis took the field against Syria’s Sunni majority; and a regional war in which external powers — including Russia, Iran, Turkey and the US — have used Syria to pursue their own interests.
The recklessness of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 seeded proxy wars between Sunni and Shia across the region and proliferated jihadism. The fecklessness of western powers egging on the Syrian rebels but outsourcing arming and supplying them to the Gulf and Turkey helped guarantee that mainstream Sunni rebels would be outflanked by Islamists.
The Assads and their apologists have nurtured 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 jails of seasoned jihadis in 2011, betting they would hijack the rebellion, just as they had fomented sectarianism in Lebanon and funnelled Sunni extremists into US-occupied Iraq.
The rebels nevertheless came close to toppling the regime in 2012, 2013 and 2015. Assad was trapped in a shrinking rump state until first Iran and then Russia came to his rescue. Now, he has recovered about 70 per cent of Syria, although swaths of this are held by regime-allied warlords and racketeers.
The price is horrendous. Russian and Syrian air strikes and artillery have reduced cities including Aleppo and Homs to rubble. Most of the more than 500,000 dead were civilians, slaughtered by barrel bombs and ballistic missiles, starvation and sieges, 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 minority regime, short of manpower, likes the new demography, and licenses war profiteers to effectively expropriate refugee property. As well as the Covid-19 emergency, famine is stalking Syria.
Complacency about the defeat of Isis and its cross-border caliphate is misplaced. Its forerunner in Iraq was reborn in Syria after being reduced to 600 fighters; security experts reckon it now has up to 40 times that number, enough for a resurgence in two rotting states. Europe, as well as the Middle East, knows from bitter experience that jihadi cut-throats are not confined to the killing fields of Iraq and Syria.
What of Syria’s future? Assad, despite his vainglorious bombast, is the ward of three states: Russia, Iran and Turkey — with the US half-in and half-out of the arena. The Syrian president, the locus of instability, blocks a new constitution pushed by Moscow that might check his despotic power. Turkey, with neo-Ottoman nostalgia, has taken four enclaves of north Syria to push US-allied Kurds from its borders. Russia and Turkey, moreover, keep coming to blows. Might Iran, paradoxically, be more biddable?
US president Joe Biden wants to return to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran that Donald Trump tore up. And then, along with Iran’s neighbours, work to restrain its missiles and militias’ efforts to forge an axis of Shia power across the Levant and down into the Gulf. That axis is actually now an arc of failed states — Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen — that Tehran and its proxies are struggling to control.
Any solution would need a new regional entente and security architecture, followed by massive reconstruction that Gulf Arab actors could profit from as they diversify away from oil. Right now, that looks more like a mirage than a vision. That does not mean there is any viable alternative.