Bashar al-Assad’s power is unbroken
Despite being challenged by the outbreak of protests and open rebellion in the wake of the Arab Spring in 2011, Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s President and effectively dictator of the country, is still in the same position of power and has chosen to crush all opposition to his claim to power with brutal force. He was reelected for a fourth term of office in presidential elections in May 2021 with 95.1 % of votes. The election has barely been recognized internationally as legitimate, having been dismissed as “neither free nor fair” by the West.
While Assad is however keen to declare the war over and cement his hold on power, the defeat of the rebel movements seems to be less clear-cut than expected. Idlib still stands as an enclave opposing the regime, despite being besieged by Russian and Assad’s troops. The fact that Idlib’s Islamic rebels are de facto allied with Turkey symbolizes the complicated nature of the Syrian civil war. In the southern province Daraa, Assad’s regime has also conducted a ruthless air strike campaign in summer 2021; Daraa is the origin of the rebellion against the regime and was under the full control of the opposition until 2018.
Next to the continued efforts in Idlib, some media organisations have also noted a return of other military forces, most importantly the Islamic State (IS). The IS has never truly been defeated, and small cells of militants seem to be making a comeback, despite two-thirds of Syrian territory being once again controlled by al-Assad.
Syria as an international battleground?
Since the outbreak of the war, the international involvement in Syria has varied in intensity and diversity. Major international powers have however aimed to get involved, using their military or political role in the civil war also as a means to their own ends in international and diplomatic relations.
Russia, for one, has been a faithful ally to Assad in the war he wages against the opposition forces. Russia started intervening in Syria in 2015 and has a notable role in carrying out air strikes with al-Assad’s forces. On the ground, Russia also unofficially deploys paramilitaries belonging to the so-called Wagner Group, a private military company.
At the same time, the US has become involved to some extent by supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), one of the major forces opposed to the government. US and European support in the conflict has however remained more limited than the involvement of Russia or Turkey. This sparked criticism, in particular as Western forces originally announced to intervene in the event of Syria’s regime using chemical weapons against civilians – which was in fact the case in August 2013, when lethal sarin nerve gas was used in an attack in Ghouta in eastern Damascus.
Turkey, being a direct neighbour to Syria, has also displayed a continued military and political interest in the conflict. For one, there is the issue of the Turkish Kurdish party and opposition movement PKK, which has been a thorn in Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s side for years. The Syrian Democratic Forces being mostly composed of Kurds from the People’s Protection Units (YPG), Turkey has classed them as “terrorists” for their links to the PKK and has used Turkey’s military intervention in Syria to go after them.
In October 2021, Erdogan has pushed for another two-year mandate that would allow Turkey to intervene militarily in Syria whenever it deemed it necessary. This move is considered mainly as motivated by internal political aims; Erdogan has recently been struggling to maintain his power and popularity levels. By declaring a war, Erdogan would be able to push back the presidential election set for 2023.
A collapsed state
Out of the population of an estimated 22 million before the war, 6 million have become refugees dispersed across the world. The remaining population faces precarious socio-economic conditions; it often depends on international humanitarian aid, which, in the case of UN aid, in turn relies on scarce transborder corridors to be delivered.
Just to add to the disastrous humanitarian situation, Covid-19 has been the last straw for the collapsing health care system. With hospitals regularly being targeted by air strikes by the regime and its Russian supporting forces, Syria has lost crucial health care infrastructure and personnel over the course of the conflict. The spread of Covid-19 is now a final blow against what remains of it, as the health care system was already unable to cope in the face of casualties from the fighting.
A fragmented country
Syria remains more fragmented than ever. While the war itself might be drawing to a close, it is unlikely that armed conflict will completely subside over the next few months or years. The decade of war has displaced much of the population, either internally or forcing them to flee the country, and has killed hundreds of thousands more. Both Syria’s infrastructure and its economy are in ruins, and the inhabitants that remain do so in dire humanitarian conditions. Around 80 % of the population live in poverty. With no national cohesion and continued, although suppressed, discontent with al-Assad, rebuilding the country will be a monumental task. It is questionable whether al-Assad’s regime is willing and able to take it on.
suppressed = opprimé
faithful = loyal
clear-cut = précis, clair
the last straw = la dernière goutte