As the Syrian conflict enters its eighth year, various commentators, and indeed governments and leaders, are trying to write it off as nearly over. Some are focused narrowly on the territorial defeat of the so-called Islamic State (IS); others have made the simplistic judgement that Bashar al-Assad’s regime is closing in on victory. Both sides are wrong.
The world’s attention has turned away from the hundreds of thousands dead and the millions bombed, displaced and starved under siege. Meanwhile, there is no longer one Syria, just a fragmented country locked in a seemingly intractable state of violence.
With IS greatly diminished, control of Syria is effectively divided between three sides: the Damascus government and its backers, opposition/rebel factions, and Kurdish forces. Here’s my review of where they stand, and what might happen to them in 2018.
The Assad regime seemed doomed to defeat in summer 2015, but thanks to the intervention of Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and other foreign militias, it now exercises at least nominal control over most of Syria’s cities and much of the remaining population.
Russian air power headed off a rebel takeover of Damascus, secured the westward route from the capital to the Mediterranean, and helped recapture all of Syria’s largest city, Aleppo. Pro-Assad forces have now regained territory in southern and central Syria, most of the Damsacus suburbs, and the opposition stronghold of Homs. Russian, Iranian, Hezbollah and regime-backed troops and militias cleared IS from the ancient city of Palymyra, pushed them away from Aleppo, and then pressed on right up to the Iraqi border.
Yet Assad still does not control large swaths of the country. There are rebel strongholds from the Jordanian border to the holdout East Ghouta area near Damascus to almost all of Idlib province in the north-west, while Kurdish-held territory in the north and east includes most of Syria’s oil and gas fields.
In the areas that it does control, even Aleppo, the regime’s grip is not entirely secure. Assad’s depleted armed forces rely heavily on Iran and Russia. With much of Syria badly damaged and 75% of its GDP gone, Assad needs billions in reconstruction assistance. And while far from isolated in the Arab world and shielded by Russia at the UN Security Council, the regime still hasn’t restored secure diplomatic relations with most of the world.
The prospect of the opposition displacing the Assad regime, or even securing representation in a national government, is long gone. Russia and Iran quashed that ambition, aided by the US’s relegation to the sidelines and by opposition backers, including Turkey, who preferred to cooperate with Moscow.
The opposition’s goal is to keep hold of the areas it still governs, including Idlib province and northern Aleppo province. Rebel groups in East Ghouta are still resisting the Assad regime’s bombardment and siege. Elsewhere, the Southern Front rebel group has been abandoned by the US-led operations centre, but still holds parts of Dara'a province, including a share of Dara'a city, where the uprising began in March 2011.
Beyond the threat of pro-Assad offensives and sieges, the opposition is also tackling the rise of hardline Islamist bloc Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). HTS was created in January 2017 and includes the faction Jabhat al-Nusra, involved in the Syria conflict since 2012 and formerly linked to al-Qaeda. Throughout 2017, HTS seized the military initiative from other factions, notably Ahrar al-Sham, in Idlib province. It is now trying to run civil affairs through a Syria Salvation Government, challenging local councils under the opposition’s Syrian Interim Government.
The conflict has given Syria’s Kurdish groups, notably the Kurdistan Democratic Unionist Party (PYD), the opportunity to pursue power, particularly in their Kobani and Cezire cantons in northeast Syria along the Turkish and Iraqi borders.
Having survived IS’s onslaught in 2014-2015, marked by the defence of Kobani city, the Kurds have since defeated the group. In autumn 2015, the US switched its support from rebels to a newly created Kurdish group, the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF).
The SDF’s reach – which includes former IS capital, Raqqa – now extends from eastern Aleppo province – where it faces both pro-Assad and rebel frontlines – across Raqqa and Hasakah provinces to the eastern Deir ez-Zor province, where it is adjacent to advancing pro-Assad units supported by Russia.
The PYD ascendancy is far from secure. For now, the US is continuing to supply arms and special forces, but it is wary of Turkey’s hostility to the SDF and Russia’s backing of the Assad regime against a “federal” Syria. The regime, unsettled by the Kurdish hold on valuable assets such as oil and gas fields, has promised a showdown if there is no SDF withdrawal.
And now Ankara has delivered on its promise of a campaign against the Afrin canton in the northwest and on other Kurdish-held areas such as the city of Manbij.
The Russian-led political process has yielded the declaration of so-called “de-escalation zones” covering opposition territory from the north-west to the south. But Pro-Assad forces (and in some cases, Russian warplanes) have repeatedly subjected the zones to attacks and sieges.
In December 2017, one assault finally overwhelmed an opposition pocket near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The months-long effort to starve and bombard East Ghouta into submission continues, and the campaign for the big prize of Idlib province is underway.
Russia is still calculating the extent of its support for Bashar al-Assad’s personal rule. Moscow’s intervention comes at a high cost: it saps a fragile Russian economy, Putin’s political capital, and claims Russian lives.
That’s why Vladimir Putin declared a token “withdrawal” at the end of 2017 – just before Russia confirmed the permanence of its naval base at Tartus in western Syria. Moscow would prefer to share the burden of the billions needed for reconstruction, but the international community is unlikely to sign a cheque to prop up a blood-soaked regime.
Assad, meanwhile, holds a trump card: there is no alternative. His government is demanding that all opposition territory must be surrendered or recaptured before any meaningful political negotiations can commence.
But neither the opposition nor the Kurds are giving up, and there are other forces at work. Turkey is still backing rebel forces in parts of the northwest; Israel is wary of Iran and Hezbollah on the border of the Golan Heights. And even if the Kurds give up their hold on oil and gas fields and even as they face Turkey’s military intervention, their pursuit of autonomous rule in at least a share of Syrian Kurdistan will continue.
The agenda for 2018 looks like more of the same. Bombing and shelling, including of civilians. Sieges, starvation, and deaths from treatable medical conditions. A Russian-backed disinformation campaign to smear medics and rescuers as puppets of both al-Qaeda and the US. Political gatherings which yield little more than platitudes. The more things change, the more they stay the same.