Syria’s ruinous civil war is 6 years old and no closer to an end
Six years into the Syrian civil war, and the country’s future remains far from certain. But the facts are clear: The brutal, generation-defining conflict has left hundreds of thousands dead, traumatized millions of children, set new standards of barbarism, and produced global knock-on effects that continue to reverberate far beyond the battlefield.
Against all odds, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remains in power, and, thanks to the backing of Russia and Iran, he now has the upper hand on the rebels militarily — an outcome once unthinkable. But Assad controls only a fraction of the deeply fractured country’s territory, including Syria’s five major cities; rival armed groups — ISIS, multiple terror groups, nationalists, Kurds — hold their own fiefdoms in much of the rural areas. And the situation is only made more complicated by the increasing foreign military presence on Syrian soil, which includes the U.S., Russia, and Turkey.
Though Russia- and Turkey-backed negotiations to broker a peace deal between the regime and opposition groups presses on, few analysts see any positives on the horizon. Instead, most predict the country will remain carved up between warlords and a tyrannical regime, with little hope that the nearly 5 million Syrian refugees who have fled their homeland will have an opportunity to return.
Here’s where things stand — and what may lie ahead — as Syria’s tortured conflict enters its seventh year.
Who’s doing the fighting?
The Syrian quagmire has sucked in a long list of international players, with most of the world’s major and regional powers backing proxy forces in the conflict, while Iran and Russia (both pro-Assad), Turkey (anti-Assad and anti-Kurds) and now the U.S. (predominantly anti-ISIS) have intervened directly.
Russia’s decision to enter the conflict in support of the Syrian regime 18 months ago swung momentum decisively in Assad’s favor. Russian air power, along with ground support from Iranian-backed Shia militias — including Lebanon’s Hezbollah — was crucial in recapturing the critical rebel-held enclave of east Aleppo in December, a major turning point in the war. The crushing and decisive defeat of rebels there brought the last of Syria’s five major cities under Assad’s control, the others being Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Latakia.
Rebel groups, Kurdish forces, and terrorist groups such as ISIS and the Nusra Front, which recently rebranded as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, control rural swaths throughout the rest of the country. Kurdish forces control large areas in the northwest and northeast, bisected by a pocket along the Turkish border under Ankara’s control. Rebels hold a large enclave in Idlib in the northwest, including an area held by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham; ISIS controls corridors extending to the Iraqi border, including the city of Raqqa, the capital of its so-called caliphate.
Now America, which has been conducting an air campaign against ISIS but has long sought to limit its ground involvement, is ramping up its presence. Last week the U.S. announced it had deployed several hundred marines with heavy artillery in preparation for the fight to oust ISIS from Raqqa, a reflection of President Donald Trump’s stated intention to destroy the group. The U.S. is also preparing to move up to 1,000 troops to Kuwait in readiness for a larger confrontation with ISIS.
Those moves follow the deployment this month of dozens of U.S. ground troops on a “reassure and deter” mission to the northern town of Manbij, where they are tasked with separating U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters from rival Turkish-backed Arab rebels in order to help keep both sides focused on fighting ISIS.
Analysts believe the move, which also prevented both groups from advancing on Syrian regime forces in the area, reflects the fact that the U.S. and its allies, long in favor of Assad’s ouster, are now prepared to tolerate his presence as they prioritize the war on ISIS.
Jane Kinninmont, senior fellow at London’s Chatham House think tank, said that “even under Obama, a lot of the U.S. defense and security establishment thought Assad was the lesser of two evils.”
Kinninmont says that position has been “amplified by Trump with his very clear sense that ISIS is the worst of all the players, and the only one that directly threatens U.S. interests.”
How bad is the humanitarian situation?
Syria’s civilians consistently bear the brunt of their country’s civil war, which continues to generate a tide of human suffering that ripples into neighboring countries and beyond. While the official U.N. death toll stands at 250,000, it is widely believed to be considerably higher; the U.N.’s special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, recently estimated it could be as high as 400,000.
Syrian and Russian forces have routinely been accused of war crimes for their tactics, including indiscriminate bombing of densely populated areas and targeting hospitals and other medical facilities. Rebels, too, have committed war crimes, according to a recent U.N. investigation.
The scale of the crisis is staggering: 4.9 million refugees, the majority of whom are women and children, have been displaced into neighboring countries, while 6.3 million people are displaced internally. Nearly 14 million Syrians need humanitarian aid; 7 million don’t have enough food and 1.75 million children are out of school.
A report from children’s charity UNICEF this week said 652 children had been killed in 2016 alone, and at least 850 had been recruited to participate in the violence — including as suicide bombers. About 3 million Syrian kids have grown up knowing nothing but war, creating a “terrifying mental health crisis” for a generation, according to a recent Save the Children report.
The humanitarian organization found two-thirds of children surveyed had lost a loved one, been injured in the war, or had their house bombed or shelled. The resultant trauma triggered children to be variously aggressive, suicidal, or unable to speak.
“Unless drastic measures are taken to shore up peace and security for Syria,” said Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “the situation will worsen.”
How are peace negotiations progressing?
Years of U.N.-sponsored talks in Geneva, led by the U.S. and Russia, have failed to yield any sort of breakthrough, with the future role of Assad proving a major sticking point.
But following the Aleppo victory, a new axis emerged that has given momentum to the negotiations.
Turkey, one of the key backers of rebels in northern Syria, brokered a deal with Russia and Iran in December for a ceasefire to evacuate east Aleppo; after the success of the arrangement, the troika said they planned to use their influence to hold negotiations in Kazakhstan in early 2017 that they hoped might revive the Geneva talks.
The new alignment was made possible by a key position-shift from Turkey: It no longer demanded Assad’s removal, seeking instead to protect Syria’s territorial integrity, fearing an autonomous Kurdish statelet on its southern border would fuel a Kurdish insurgency on its own soil.
The troika said it sought to widen the ceasefire in Aleppo to the rest of the country, but that hasn’t happened. A recent report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights says hundreds of breaches have occurred, most of them by regime forces, and that “killing, destruction, and displacement are now at the same levels they were prior” to the ceasefire.
Two rounds of talks have been held in Kazakhstan this year, but Turkish-backed Syrian rebels boycotted the latest, scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday, citing continued government attacks on rebel-held areas.
While Assad has vowed to win back every inch of his country, Kinninmont says Russia is eager for a negotiated peace that codifies what they already see as a military victory. The Syrian regime’s military is hardly robust and has relied heavily on its allies in recent years; by negotiating a deal, Russia and Iran would avoid having to commit further military resources on Assad’s behalf.
“The fact that the parties are talking is progress — they recently met face-to-face in Geneva for the first time in three years,” said Scott Craig, spokesperson for the U.N. Refugee Agency. “But we have to see what the impact will be on the ground.”
What lies ahead?
In lieu of a decisive battlefield victory for regime forces, which could take years, or a negotiated settlement, most observers predict a continuation of the status quo. That is, a country effectively divided into rival fiefdoms, with efforts intermittently made to enforce a ceasefire agreement.
There is one thing that appears to be fairly certain, however.
“It’s very difficult to see Assad going any time soon,” Kinninmont said. “He will feel at this point stronger than ever with the military backing of Russia and the sense that the Trump administration is not going to be looking for his removal.”
She added that a future of “warlord rule” in Syria may look something like Somalia.
The repercussions of the conflict have had an enormous impact on global politics in the form of millions of refugees and escalating sectarian tensions, and flowed onward into the West, where the migrant crisis and the rise of the ISIS threat has destabilized Europe and helped fuel populist politics in Trump’s America.
“It all relates back to the Syria conflict as something that has had a toxic effect on world affairs, and on Muslim-Christian relations around the world,” Kinninmont said.
“There should be more of an interest in solving it, but no one really knows how.”
Cover: (REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi)