The war in Syria is essentially over

Looking forward, military opposition’s only refuge is likely to be sliver of land along Turkish border.

2017/02/12 Issue: 93 Page: 7

The Arab Weekly
Stephen Starr

Without anyone taking much notice, the war in Syria has all but ended. A month-old countrywide ceasefire, despite all expectations and previous iterations, is largely being respected.

A series of defeats for the armed opposition over the past several months in Aleppo and critical satellite towns around Damascus has essentially confined it to little more than a chapter in the history of Syria’s post-revolt period.

Sure, localised infighting continues among Islamist groups in Idlib, which are facing constant regime air strikes. There are campaigns by various elements against the Islamic State (ISIS) in the north and east and a stalemate in eastern Ghouta. The guns, however, have by and large fallen silent.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights, although by no means the singular authority on counting deaths in Syria, reports that of civilian losses since March 2011, just 8% occurred in 2016. Last month, 781 civilians were killed, almost half the November death toll.

When major intelligence consultancies turn their attention to topics of post-war rebuilding it is safe to assume that a new chapter is unfolding. Take a brief from Stratfor published February 6th stating: “Tehran intends to offer the services of its state-owned companies for Syria’s reconstruction. When the time comes, Iran will be Syria’s preferred partner for efforts to restore the country.”

Little doubt remains that the Syrian regime has defeated the armed opposition and how we can expect Syria to look in the years and decades ahead is taking shape: Kurds have and will continue to enjoy autonomy in the north; the regime will hold all major urban centres and the control ISIS maintains across Syria and Iraq will likely be wiped out by the middle of 2018.

Looking forward, the military opposition’s only refuge is likely to be the sliver of land along the Turkish border now under Ankara’s control, pending an agreement between Damascus and Turkey, something that has looked increasingly likely in recent weeks.

The de facto end of the civil war, however, in no way means that an all-encompassing political solution is likely in the near future. While the regime has allowed opposition groups and their supporters a minuscule degree of autonomy centred on Idlib province, it will soon seek to eliminate that, too.

Nor should recent events suggest that Syria is now or will become the bastion of stability it once claimed to be. In contrast to the open warfare visited upon the country over the past five-plus years, a low-intensity conflict marked by suicide bombings and political assassinations in regime-held cities and towns, raids on suspected opposition neighbourhoods and occasional coalition air strikes on jihadists hiding out in Syria’s eastern desert regions are all likely to colour Syria’s future. Goods will remain prohibitively expensive and infrastructure will continue to crumble.

Who or what is responsible for the regime’s victory? Though it is easy to blame the West for the failing to back the uprising’s democratic aspirations, the days of CIA-inspired coups and rebellions have passed. Russia sought, and got, a way into the Middle East’s political theatre, as any despotic regime would have hankered for.

Greater responsibility must be directed towards the opposition groups themselves, who, from day one, bickered and sought to establish local fiefdoms before taking on Syrian President Bashar Assad in 2012 and 2013.

The relative of a close friend, a rebel fighter who left Dariya for Idlib during last August’s negotiated truce, has since given up on unseating the regime and has headed to Turkey. He said the degree of rebel infighting he witnessed in Idlib over the past several months left him disillusioned. In besieged Dariya he fought for a cause. In Idlib, all that remains is a fight for crumbs.

This is not to suggest a moral equivalency between rebels and the atrocities of the Assad regime. News that more than 10,000 people were executed at Saydnaya prison until 2015 is only the latest example of the government’s penchant for brutality. With the regime having won the war, this reign of terror has endured.

Stephen Starr is an Irish journalist who lived in Syria from 2007 to 2012. He is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising (Oxford University Press: 2012).

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