Syria has suffered through six years civil war in which civilians have often been deliberately targeted by all sides. There are no signs the ferocity of the war is fading. Millions of people have braved the dangers of migration to Europe, millions more are huddled in crowded, underfunded refugee camps in Turkey or Jordan, millions are trapped in Syria.
It Takes Two To Tango, But ...
We talk about the civil war in Syria and that often conjures up a two sided conflict, like the U.S. Civil War. Not only were there two clear sides but the rest of the world by and large left us alone to battle it out.
But it can be very misleading to call the agonizing conflict in Syria a civil war.
Not Just a Syrian Conflict. Almost as soon as the popular uprising against the Assad regime was met by military repression, the conflict begin to transcend the Syrian borders. As the regime's military moved against the various centers of popular resistance, local militias were mobilized and began to coordinate with each other. From the perspective of Iran and Saudi Arabia, Syria is best understood as another skirmish in the region-wide conflict between Shi'a and Sunni Islam [I tried to clarify this in an earlier blog http://ir-comments.blogspot.com/2014/01/syria-has-become-regional-battleground.html ] Later Russia intervened on behalf of the Assad regime as a way of regaining a foothold in the Middle East and reasserting itself as a force to be reckoned with in the region.
The United States began a fruitless search for a moderate group that at least paid lip service to some version of secular democracy AND could unify the increasingly contentious and squabbling armed groups. Rightly or wrongly, the concern that weapons and supplies not fall into the hands of groups who saw America as the enemy dominated Obama's approach to Syria and led him to refuse significant support to any of the Syrian opposition parties.
The Mirage of “Moderation” When Hafez al Assad led a successful military coup in 1969 that brought authoritarian stability to a chaotic Syrian political scene, the intellectual basis and political vocabulary of opposition to the status quo was secular nationalism. The new regime set about creating a new Syria by following the example of a large number of other Third World countries: government directed and dominated economy, emphasis on education in general and education for a Syrian national identity in place of regional and religious identities in particular, and a strong state that could supplant local land owners and other traditional leaders. Some trappings of democracy were present – an initial emphasis on the rule of law, a relatively vibrant and free press, even tolerance for political parties as long as they did not directly threaten the regime. But after major progress in the 70's and 80's the economy stalled, the regime stagnated, the young idealists who had flocked to government service were either replaced by self-serving careerists or became one themselves, and bribery and corruption become endemic. And, most relevant to today, the intellectual basis and political vocabulary of opposition became political Islam, in particular the version that looks backward to an imagined Golden Age and rejects modernity. A much smaller opposition movement existed in the emerging urban middle class that drew upon European and American conceptions of democracy.
The initial demonstrations against the Assad regime in Damascus and elsewhere in the spring of 2011 were organized and led by the urban middle class opposition but when the regime responded with draconian force, it was armed groups in the smaller cities and villages that came to the fore. And they reflected the dominant Islamist perspective. The armed opposition involved multiple local groups and militias, with more or less rigid ideological positions.
The arrival of Russian equipment and personnel tipped the balance on the battlefield. The regime had been steadily losing ground to the various opposition armed forces; now, with the ability to attack from the air at any time and anywhere, more and more areas were retaken and the opposition groups were increasingly pushed out of urban areas into the countryside.
A War to the Death?
A major factor that distinguishes Syria from other countries where a civil war has raged is the stakes. The most common issue in a civil war is the attempt of one region to break away from an existing country. But in Syria the conflict has come to be defined as a struggle over the identity and survival of the combatants.
Damascus is some 15,000 years old; Aleppo, the other major city in Syria, is a relatively young 5,000 years old. For most of its history Damascus has been a center of intellectual, cultural and commercial activity in the entire Mediterranean region. Damascus and Aleppo experienced the greatest changes during the Assad years, developing a modern economy, a well-educated middle class, and a reputation for producing first-rate medical personnel and engineers. They are also home to the largest state run enterprises and government bureaus, providing career opportunities to upwardly mobile young Syrians.
But the majority of Syrians live in smaller cities, towns and villages where change has been slower and traditional religious and social values predominate. The ideology of most armed opponents of the regime reflects this rural perspective and are antithetical to the perspectives of most city dwellers.
The wanton destruction of monuments in Palmyra, the suffering of the citizens of Mosul and Raqqa, the harshly repressive rule imposed on the portions of Aleppo under opposition control are clear evidence to the regime's supporters that their lives, both symbolically and physically, are at stake in this struggle. And from the perspective of much of the opposition, it is not so much Bashir al Assad, evil as he is, that is at stake. It is a Godless, Westernized, immoral and corrupt urban society that cries out for correction.
Defeat for the regime seems to threaten massive bloodshed and endless suffering; defeat for the opponents entails the sacrifice of religion to secularism and the dismantling of the moral and social order. That, I think, helps explain not only the difficulty of some compromise, but also the ferocity and brutality of the fighting on both sides. While for most Syrians the great desire is to be left alone and spared any involvement in the war, for the people making decisions and carrying weapons on both sides, it is seen as Good versus Evil.
What About ISIS?
A major complication for all sides emerged when Al Qaeda in Iraq morphed into the Islamic State. Taking advantage of the fact that government forces had given up trying to control a large part of eastern Syria, the group seized control of a significant amount of territory, including the city of Raqqa, and in 2014 declared a caliphate. ISIS, unlike the other major armed groups in Syria, is not primarily seeking regime change in Damascus. It has sought to expand and consolidate its territory in Syria and Iraq and has been as willing to fight other Islamist groups as well as Syrian or Iraqi government forces, since it sees itself as the only authentically Islamic group in the world.
The rapid territorial expansion of ISIS, its gruesomely barbaric videos of beheadings, mass executions and torture, its incredibly harsh and brutal treatment of people in towns and villages that it controlled and its active promotion of terrorist attacks in Europe gave the U.S. and the world a new and frightening enemy, one that the United States would and could oppose militarily. The initial involvement was in Iraq where the U.S
resumed training and equipping the Iraqi army and also working with the Kurdish army and local militias. Within the past year U.S. special forces have been operating in Syria against ISIS positions.
The Trump administration does not seem to have a policy or plan for dealing with Syria but it does appear to have a plan for dealing with ISIS and it differs only in degree from Obama's. The United States will use almost any measure short of direct involvement by major military forces to support the war against ISIS. And it has been a successful war. The fight for Mosul, which is continuing as I write this, has been a vicious house to house, street to street battle but ISIS fighters are slowly being eliminated from the city. That is their last base in Iraq. In Syria, a combination of Iranian and Russian backed militias and Turkish and Kurdish forces supported by the U.S. have begun the battle to retake Raqqa, the capital of the ISIS caliphate and the last remnant of ISIS territory. Very quietly the Trump administration has increased the U.S. presence in the battle for Raqqa and it is possible to see the day when the battle against ISIS shifts from conventional military conflict to more traditional counter-terrorism.
It is difficult to see anything but profound tragedy in Syria's future. As hard as I try, I just can't imagine any scenario in which there is a negotiated settlement. There might have been some hope when the Russians first intervened. Then the government was losing territory, the Russians seem to make it clear that Bashir al Assad's future was negotiable, and the U.S. and Russia might be able to put together a cease fire leading to a negotiated transition to a new, more inclusive regime. But the fractious rebel forces and the United States could not agree on which rebel groups would actually be represented in any negotiations, and neither the United States nor Russia could get the multiple fighting units to actually honor a cease fire.
Now the Syrian government has no incentive to negotiate; they are winning on the ground. It seems most likely that the government will be able to neutralize, if not totally annihilate the armed opposition. Civilians trapped between the lines will continue to be killed in attacks that do not discriminate between fighters and bystanders. The regime will use poison gas or any other weapon it deems militarily useful; there is nothing the U.S. or the rest of the world can do about it.
And when the killing finally stops, as much a half of all Syrians will be living in refugee camps outside the country, much of the country will be in ruins. It may take generations for Syria to recover.