Much of the world seems to have forgotten Syria’s savage civil war, 10 years old and still well able to flare up and radiate chaos across the Middle East — and Europe.
The international complacency that set in after the defeat of Isis is misplaced. So is the idea that fragile neighbouring states such as Lebanon, Jordan and even Turkey can indefinitely be bought off to act as holding pens for 6m Syrian refugees, and funnels for aid to 6m Syrians internally displaced.
The forerunner of Isis in Iraq was reborn in Syria after being reduced to 600 fighters; security experts reckon it now still has up to 40 times that number, enough for a resurgence in two rotting states. Europe, as well as the Middle East, should know from bitter experience that jihadi cut-throats are not confined to the killing fields of Iraq and Syria.
Yet it seems to take unconscionably long to learn even basic lessons from this tragedy.
The World Health Organization, a UN agency, has just elevated Bashar al-Assad’s government to its executive board. In the decade until this February, this murderous regime attacked and in many cases destroyed about 600 hospitals and clinics, driving physicians physically underground.
The Assads, backed by patrons such as Vladimir Putin’s Russia, have proliferated the fiction they are a secular bulwark against religious extremism. In fact, they are incubators of poisonous forces to which they offer themselves as the antidote. The regime emptied jails of jihadis in 2011, betting they would hijack the mainly Sunni rebellion; just as they had fomented sectarianism in Lebanon and funnelled Sunni extremists into US-occupied Iraq — midwifing the precursor of Isis.
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 are held by regime-allied warlords and racketeers. The rest by jihadis, US-allied Kurdish militia, and Turkey in four northern enclaves.
The country is in ruins. Russian and Syrian bombardment has reduced cities including Aleppo and Homs to rubble. Most of the more than 500,000 dead were civilians.
Such institutions as existed have collapsed. A rare functioning unit of the army, the Fourth Armoured Division led by Maher al-Assad, the president’s volatile younger brother, provides cover for the trade and exactions conducted by mafias and militias.
Half the population has been displaced, many for good. The minority Alawite regime, short of manpower, likes the new demography, and licenses war profiteers to expropriate refugee property. Along with the Covid-19 emergency it cannot cope with, famine is stalking Syria.
Assad staged another farcical election last month, emerging with 95 per cent of the vote. Despite his bombast, he is the ward of three states: Russia, Iran and Turkey. US president Joe Biden will be meeting Putin next week in Geneva, and Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the Nato summit in Brussels. The US is engaging Iran on reviving the 2015 nuclear restraint deal. Syria is on all their tables.
This is treacherous ground for Biden but it is time to insist the Assads are a locus of instability. The only way forward is a new regional entente, led by arch-rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, and an externally agreed security architecture.
This could unlock reconstruction funds that Gulf Arab countries could profit from as they diversify away from oil. That may look more mirage than vision. The alternatives are all bloody.