Syria's war has been won by President Bashar Al-Asad, yet the devastation wrought will remain etched on the country. Fighting has ebbed and flowed since the dramatic months of February, March and April when the final assault on besieged eastern Ghouta commenced. In April, after the Syrian regime allegedly launched a chemical attack on the enclave, airstrikes and sea missile strikes by the United States, France, the United Kingdom on the outskirts of Homs and Damascus including the Him Shinshar chemical weapons bunker and Barzah research and development centre Damascus. Israeli warplanes, intermittently bombing Syrian, Iranian and Hizbullah positions also struck a weapons supply hub manned by Lebanese group Hezbollah near Damascus airport on 27th April, just weeks after the Western airstrikes.
BASHAR AL-ASAD'S PYYRHIC VICTORY
President Al-Asad remains undeterred, and the airstrikes have been ineffective in hastening the conflict's conclusion with the regime continuing to drive the rebels into the ground. In reality, victory was sealed when Aleppo finally succumbed to the combined pressure of Iranian and Russian militias and the remnants of the Syrian military in December 2016. This broke the back of the opposition forces - largely radicalised by years of bitter fighting. Rebels and their families - mostly Sunni - who surrendered have been captured or they have been evacuated to Idlib, close to the Turkish border and the opposition's last remaining stronghold. The challenge of recapturing the town will be a stern test at a tactical level, however at a strategic level, its isolation means that the battle will have little impact on the final outcome of the war.
Parts of Syria remain war-zones. Al-Asad's forces have continued to pummel Daesh's jihadist fighters and sleeper cells operating in Douma, Tima and al-Moutana in the south. However, Daesh proved that they are far from finished as a fighting group killing between 160-200 government fighters and civilians in Sweida, close to the Golan Heights and Daara in the south. The combined attack by four suicide bombers was the deadliest attack of the war by the terrorist group. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's sub-statelet, a self-proclaimed 'Islamic State' fell within four years of it inauguration, yet Daesh remain a lethal terrorist and insurgent group as demonstrated by multiple bombing in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria which have killed hundreds in a matter of weeks. Hundreds of White Helmets and other anti-Asad activists have been forced into Israel and the town Daara, the cradle of the Syrian uprising was recaptured in July, 2018. Two symbols of the ill-fated revolt have been smothered by the clique of President Al-Asad in less than a month.
The horrific attack in Sweida desperate response to the Syrian military's offensive which at its peak, drove 320,000 from their homes. Many of these internally displaced persons have returned home, however many remain in desperate conditions on the Jordan and Israel's borders. Israel has refused to allow refugees into the country with the exception of treating wounded opposition fighters and activists such as the White Helmets, while Jordan has began to turn refugees away from its border. Already hosting 1.6 million refugees, Jordan’s minister of planning and international co-operation, Mary Kawar, told the Jordan Times, “For eight years now we have been hosting [Syrian] refugees and providing them with the necessary services and economic opportunities in spite of [the] tremendous economic, military, security and humanitarian burdens.” Lebanon has also began a process of returning refugees to Syria, which at one point represented 25 percent of the Lebanese population during the fiercest years of the civil war.
Echoing the words of Mary Kawar, according to The Financial Times, Gebran Bassil said that solutions to Syria's civil war could not be found in the long-term presence of refugees in Lebanon. “We cannot wait for a political solution [to the war in Syria],” said Gebran Bassil, Lebanon’s minister of foreign affairs, on a visit to Arsal last month. “The return of the displaced will create the solution.” Syria is not safe, and certainly not for those who have fled the wrath of Al-Asad.
ONE WAR TO ANOTHER?
With the opposition, radical and moderate, crushed for the time being, the next steps for President Al-Asad will be clearing up the few remaining pockets of resistance in the Syrian Golan, Idlib and southern Syria. The next major developments in the Middle Eastern conflict lies firstly in the Syrian Golan, a hot-spot for the Israeli-Iranian rivalry, and indeed the Syrian government's multi-generational conflict with Israel (who they have fought three major wars with in the Jewish state, Syria and Lebanon). Since the civil war in Syria began, tensions have been rising between the Iranians, Syrians and the Israeli and have threatened to explode into open warfare.
After hundreds of years of Sunni-dominance, Iraq became a Shia state after the botched invasion and occupation of Iraq by Amercian-led forces in 2003. "It was the first time the Shia have held power in the Arab world since the Fatimids," during the Middle Ages between 990 - 1171. To put the fortunes of the Shia into context, the final year of the Fatimid dynasty was twenty years before King Richard the Lionheart, the Cœur de Lion, was to land at Acre in 1191 during the Third Crusade. The Bush administration also, inadvertently, aided a process the Americans, Israelis and Saudis had attempted to contain since the Iranian Revolution began in 1978-1979: 'The successful political activism of the Shia in the Middle East only developed over the last half century. Few paid attention to the radical potential of Shiism before the Iranian revolution, the rise of Ḥizbullāh in Lebanon or the Shia uprising in Iraq in 1991 which was then followed by their gradual takeover of power in Iraq after 2003.' (Patrick Cockburn, Muqtada Al-Sadr, 29) Removing Saddam, in the eyes of the many regional states, broke the shield which checked Iranian influence in the Gulf and the Middle East.
In-turn, Syria - from Israel's perspective - has become a haven from which Shia Iran can now launch covert operations and links Iranian forces closer to those of Hizbullah in Lebanon both of whom intervened in the Syrian Civil War on the side of President Al-Asad. From Iraq to Syria to Lebanon to Yemen, a so-called 'Shia Crescent' exists through which Iranian and Hizbullah soldiers can apparently move at will. This threatens the political and economic interests of the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel as Iran builds upon the strategic depth they gained in the Iraq War by cementing Al-Asad into its sphere of influence after coming to the dictator's aid in the war in Syria.
The second fault-line in Syria exists in the eastern part of the country where U.S forces, while small in number (the Pentagon states the estimated amount to be 2000), remain deployed across north-eastern Syria including Manbij, Hasaka and al-Tanf. With the support of the Syrian Democratic Forces and Kurdish forces (Iraqi and Syrian) they have driven Daesh from 90% of their territories which the Salafi-jihadists captured since the start of the Syrian War and the Iraqi Civil War. Confrontations between American-led forces and Russian mercenaries, Iranian proxies, and pro-Asad militia have been frequent, and tensions between the United States and Turkey have been high, after Operation Olive Branch and Operation Euphrates Shield brought Recip Erdogan's government into In Syria, Turkey and the United States have conflicting interests and have navigated their differences with considerable difficulty.
United initially on regime change in Syria, both have dropped the primary objective with Turkey focused on suppressing the increasingly autonomous Syrian Kurds and the Iraqi Kurds while the United States under President Obama and President Trump have been focused on destroying Daesh. The increasingly authoritarian nature of Erdogan's government has, alongside the tactical alliance between the Kurds and U.S military, has strained relations with the West.
Despite this, Patrick Cockburn and Robert Fisk both believe the Syrian War is reaching some sort of endgame. Certain so-called 'rules of the game' will have to be adhered to, particularly by the Iranians, Syria and Hizbullah on the Syrian Golan while key regional brokers including Jordan, Egypt, Turkey and to some extent the Gulf States. Russia will play a pivotal role in keeping these regional foes apart. Provoking the Israelis supported by a Trump administration with a hardline stance on the Iranian regime and supported by the Saudi Arabians in a Cold War with Iran could ignite a fierce regional war, far more devastating than what was witnessed in both Syria and Iraq at the turn of the 21st century.
A regional war, for now, seems to be an unlikely outcome. Israel does not want a war with Iran and Hizbullah on two fronts in Lebanon and Syria. Confronting Hizbullah within Lebanon, north of Israel, would be the preferred strategy for the IDF. For the Syrian regime, another conflict would be disastrous. The armed forces of Al-Asad have been exhausted by seven years of war losing tens of thousands of men to desertion and death in the field of battle and its ally Hizbullah has lost thousands of fighters in its efforts to consolidate the government of Al-Asad. It is only through the intervention of the Iranians, Russians and Hizbullah that President Al-Asad's military and regime have survived, and it is behind this shield provided by his allies that he and his allies can rebuild their strength for the wars to come.
The pendulum of the Middle Eastern conflict will swing back into the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as Daesh's influence (both militarily and as a media story) recedes and the civil wars in Syria and Iraq reach their respective ends. Serious conflicts between Hizbullah, Israel and Iran, another war in Gaza and a Palestinian/Israeli Arab revolt are near certain. What is uncertain is when all these will occur and the price which will be inflicted.
THE SYRIAN NAKBA
The fault-lines across the region, indeed the globe, created by the Syrian War and consequences of the conflict will remain for decades. The impact on the Syrian people will remain for a generation as the battle for post-conflict Syria begins while the country smoulders. The statistics remain startling. According to Syrian Centre for Policy Research in 2016, 11.5% of the Syrian population has been killed or wounded while 45% of the population was displaced. In 2018, it likely that two million have been wounded while half a million men, women and children - at least - are dead. As of April 2018, more than 5.6 million Syrians have fled the country, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and more than 6 million people are displaced internally. As many as a million children have been orphaned by the war in Syria and two and a half million have been made homeless by ceaseless conflict across the country.
David Hearst described the Syrian refugees exposed to the most vicious conflict of the 21st century, as new Palestinians. "Abandoned by the US, betrayed by Arab governments, shut out of Europe, these refugees are an increasingly significant political fact. The parallels exist between their fate and those of the Palestinians after the creation of Israel in 1948. (The refugees) were persuaded by Arab governments that they would return soon and that those Arab governments would do the fighting for them. Both have been betrayed. These refugees are an increasingly significant political fact."
Parallel to this, certain policies including the development of Law 10 by the Syrian regime have troubled international organisations, governments and journalists. The legislation, as journalist Aron Lund notes, is a way to 'attract private capital by offering up valuable urban real estate.' The problem as Lund writes is 'the opposition and international human rights groups warn it is a fig leaf for mass confiscation of refugee property, perhaps preventing their eventual return...what seem likely to be the first areas set for redevelopment under Law 10: Barzeh, Jobar, Qaboun, and Yarmouk. All are formerly besieged rebel-held areas in Damascus, most of whose residents have been displaced.' Ethnic cleansing and sectarian violence has catalysed widespread demographic changes across Syria. According to journalist Robert Fisk, from the perspective of Assad’s opponents, "the regime is trying to dispossess its largely Sunni Muslim opponents, rebuild the devastated areas in which they lived and then sell them off at vast profit. This, they say, is a form of sectarian ethnic cleansing since the government will inevitably allow its Shia Muslim allies, including the Alawite minority, to live in the newly reconstructed areas."
Alongside the controversy of building on the bones of the Syrian revolt, the long-term impact could also be disastrous. As with Lebanon, gentrification could destroy 'these areas architectural history - as majestic old buildings are toppled in favour of investment-friendly monstrosities.' History is also neglected and post-conflict reconciliation is further hampered as the traumas of Syria's war are erased rather than addressed. How a war is remembered is essential to post-conflict reconciliation and Syria's neighbour still struggles with the demons of its own civil war in the 1970s and 1980s. Similarly in the Syria, the Hama uprising in 1982 against Bashar's father, Hafez Al-Asad was dealt with in a similar way: demolish the buildings, build on the corpses, bury them deep. The residents of Hama, those within the Muslim Brotherhood facing crackdown, and anyone suspected of being involved with those who confronted Hafez Al-Asad and the Baath Party (who were incarcerated, massacred, harassed or tortured) never forgot these acts of cruelty by the regime.
The wound festered and contributed significantly to both the strength of the Syrian Revolution and the reigniting of Syria's simmering rivalries stamped out by Hafez Al-Asad. Those crushed today in Syria's war will not forget the massacres, the widespread destruction and torture inflicted upon men, women and children across the country, and those who've been driven abroad will not stop advocating, campaigning and building a coalition to topple the regime further down the road. Fighting may cease for now, but the war for how Syria wishes to define itself goes on, and will do so with or without the regime.
Matthew C.K Williams