Syria: failed, forgotten state

Published January 11th, 2023 - 11:54 GMT
Syrian children walk under the rain in Kafr Batna, in the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta area, on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on March 28, 2016. (Photo by AMER ALMOHIBANY / AFP)

ALBAWABA - All news of Syria has slipped from international attention but its crisis continues with no sense of an ending. Bashar Assad may have clung on to power and yet the warped world of post-war Syria shows the pyrrhic nature of his victory. All diplomatic efforts to find a political solution have flopped.

The country has inhabited a state of crisis for many years now, but its troubles have reached devastating levels: out of a total population of 22.1 million people, 15.3 million need humanitarian assistance in 2023 (an increase of 700,000 people since last year), 97% of the population lives in extreme poverty and over 80% lack food security.

Assad’s regime reportedly controls around two-thirds of Syria, although the verb ‘control’ is generous given large parts of these areas are dogged by crime, protest, and quiet insurgency. The final third of the country falls under a mishmash of authority, including Syrian opposition and Islamist forces in the northwest, and the Syrian Democratic Forces in the northeast.

As expressed by U.N. Special Envoy Geir Pedersen, conflict remains “very active” across the country, referring to the continual threat of ISIS and military capabilities of other insurgents.

Syria’s insecurity is heightened by external powers. Turkey, Israel and Russia have all launched raids in recent weeks and months, ensuring that the country grimly enters its 12th year of war.

Israeli operations have multiplied to counter Iran’s growing presence in Syria and disturb Tehran’s increasing use of aerial supply lines to arm allies (2023 began with Syria’s main international airport temporarily closed because of Israeli missiles which killed a couple of Syrian soldiers); Turkey’s assault on Kurdish positions in the north-east has not abated; and militant opposition groups in areas free from regime control continue to make battle with Russian airpower.

In December 2015, the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 2254 calling for fair elections, a new constitution, and credible, inclusive, and non-sectarian governance. Since then, the UN has led mediation between the Assad regime and opposition in order to reach a political settlement reflecting these aspirations; but these halting efforts have yielded nothing.

This is primarily because Assad’s resistance to the Geneva process which has hardened as the incentives for taking it seriously have weakened; the path of rehabilitation for Syria on a world stage no longer depends on its outcome given the growing number of MENA regimes who have signalled their intent to welcome Assad back into the fold.  

Syria’s patron, Russia, had committed itself to the process as a political settlement promised the easing of sanctions and access to funds for reconstruction. However, Assad defied pressure from Moscow, proving the limits of influential patrons to co-opt even weak clients.

The obstinacy of the Assad regime to play ball has contributed to a firm belief amongst many observers that the current process has been exhausted and the time for a fundamentally new approach has arrived.

Throughout 2021, U.N. Special Envoy Geir Pedersen had been preparing for a new round of multilateral “step-for-step” diplomacy in 2022. Though it was always a tall order, hope that 2022 would revive diplomacy in Syria evaporated with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as the perishing of Western-Russian relations saw this initiative become redundant.

Last year, Russia vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have extended cross-border aid to Syria by one year without Damascus’s backing; this marked the 17th time since 2011 it had used its veto to uphold Assad’s sovereignty over the country – and deprive the Syrian people of assistance.

Ukraine’s conflict is predicted to create a humanitarian crisis in Syria fiercer than any yet witnessed by the country. It is forcing basic services and the economy to the edge of collapse through its sharp increase of prices on necessities like fuel, aggravation of food insecurity, and redirection of humanitarian funding away from Syria to Ukraine.

The consequences of renewed crisis in Syria will not only be felt locally but could strike further afield in the region and beyond.

The position of the United States has been inconsistent. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has repeated Washington’s commitment to the 2015 UN resolution and dismissed any normalisation with the Assad regime.

However, the US proposal to facilitate the export of Egyptian gas and Jordanian electricity through Syria in order to help Lebanon’s energy crisis has been gaining momentum through 2022. Despite its compelling humanitarian rationale, it clearly violates US sanctions on the Assad regime.

This muddled policy reveals the US administration’s conflicting desire to maintain punitive action against the Assad regime, and to encourage intra-Arab cooperation to soften Syria’s dependence on Iran.

Prompted by the reality that a negotiated settlement with Moscow is unworkable while war thunders in Ukraine, the Biden Administration has limited its activity in the country to counterterrorism operations and humanitarian assistance.

Washington’s waning interest in Syria reflects its broader attitude towards the Middle East as its energies are spent on great power competition in the East and Russian aggression in the West.

The 2011 uprisings in Syria represented another false spring in the Middle East. The nightmare of its failed revolution will continue to torment its people in another punishing year of privation and conflict.

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