Is the War in Syria Finally Coming to a Close?
The year 2021 marked ten years since the beginning of Syria's civil war. What had initially started as a peaceful uprising against Syria's president Bashar al-Assad has quickly escalated into a full-fledged war. Nine rounds of UN-mediated peace talks later and no progress has been made. When pro-democracy demonstrations erupted in 2011 in the city of Deraa, no one could have predicted the severe and life-shattering consequences that Syria is currently experiencing. By December 2020, a staggering 387,118 people were reported to have died, including around 117,000 civilians. As shocking as the number is, the toll does not include the 205,300 people that are said to be missing and presumed dead. Though in 2020, a ceasefire was brokered by Russia and Turkey, many fear that this is only the calm before the storm. So is the war in Syria coming to a close? With so many actors involved, the solution to the conflict does not lay only in the hands of the Syrians.
A Quick Trip Back in Time:
The conflict in Syria is more complex than one would think. On one hand, it is a struggle between the Syrian government, backed by Russian and Iranian forces, and the anti-government rebel groups, backed by the United States, and several Gulf Arab states. Russian air campaigns in 2015 and Iranian-backed troops have proven to be decisive in tilting the war outcomes in favour of the government. Iran has trained and heavily financed militias, coming mainly from Lebanon's Hezbollah movement, who have fought alongside Assad's army. The United States and other Western powers have initially been involved in providing support to moderate rebel groups but have switched to non-lethal assistance once jihadists became the dominant faction of the armed opposition.
But the can also be found in the Turkish military operation in Syria and the US-led fight against Daesh. Even though Turkey is generally considered to be on the side of the government opposition, it has directed its focus on the Kurdish militia dominating the Syrian Democratic forces. Turkey views the Kurdish militia as an extension of the Kurdish rebel group that has been banned in Turkey. On top of that, the coalition consisting of the United States, France, and the United Kingdom has conducted over 11,000 air strikes against IS targets in Syria. The IS has been seizing control of territories since 2013 and has conducted several terrorist attacks across Europe in 2015. Amidst the chaos, IS and Al-Qaeda were able to seize 70% of Syria's territory. With so many clashing and diverging interests, it is no surprise that the conflict has become more of an endless war.
Who is in Charge Now?
Assad's government has regained control over major cities and ⅔ of the Syrian territory, but it has failed to restore full sovereignty over Syria. Still large parts of the country are being held by rebel groups, jihadists, and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic forces. On top of that, the regime only controls 15% of all of Syria's border areas with the rest being in the hands of foreign actors. Iranian backed militias control over 20% of Syria's borders with pro-Iranian forces being in control of several military airports. These are used to supply weapons to Hezbollah and the frontline located in the Golan Heights bordering Israel. In the north, Turkish and Russian forces prevented Assad's regime from gaining full control over Syria's borders, leaving him only with the Kasab crossing located north of Latakia. Similarly, the Iraqi side of Syria's Eastern border is in the hands of Shia militias.
Although Daesh no longer controls any of Syria's territory and has recently lost its leader Abu Ibrahim al-Qurayshi in the US-led Syria raid, it has not been eradicated as a movement. It is unknown how much power al-Qurayshi possessed and how significant he was to the movement. It is likely that more than anything else his killing will result in a reorganization of the IS or its potential fragmentation resulting in new, smaller extremist groups.
No End to Syrians' Suffering
Bashar al-Assad was sworn in the presidential role for his fourth consecutive seven-year term in 2021, winning an overwhelming majority of 95.1% of all votes. But the elections were labelled as illegitimate by Assad's opposition and Western powers. And the future for Syria does not seem bright. Even though the fighting has largely stopped, Assad is starting his new term with a war-torn and economically devastated country. According to the United Nations, more than half (55%) of Syria's pre-war population of 22 million have fled their homes. While 6.7 million are believed to be internally displaced, 5.6 million are registered as refugees abroad, with Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan hosting 93% of refugees.
It is estimated that 13.4 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. After ten years of Syria's war its economic output has shrunk by 60% with its currency depreciating by 99%. And over 12 million of Syria's population are facing food insecurity. What is worse, the government has been blocking and imposing restrictions on humanitarian aid delivery in government-controlled areas and elsewhere, using it as a punishment for those that oppose the government. Refugees returning back to Syria have come home to destroyed houses, infrastructure and medical facilities, and a myriad of human rights violations. According to the UN, the government has not provided them with the help needed to enable them to return to their normal lives.
The war in Syria has turned into a regional and global proxy war, sparking a regional humanitarian and refugee crisis. Even though 11 years have passed since the beginning of the war, it is still a living nightmare. Not only has Assad's regime provided limited support to its starving population, the country still hosts a myriad of anti-IS operations led by the United States, and increasingly more anti-Iran operations conducted by Israel. And caught in the middle are the Syrian people, facing all the hardship brought about by continuous fighting and power struggles between different actors. Even when the fighting subsides, the country will still have to be rebuilt from its ashes, and with so many actors involved, reaching a solution will be difficult.
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