A Decade of Despair
Next month marks a grim milestone in Syria’s conflict, the recognition that ten years have gone by since the country made a rapid descent into chaos. What was a relatively underreported part of the Middle East suddenly becoming headline news and although 2020 was the least deadly year to date, the complicated patchwork of politics and power continues to make it one of the most dangerous countries on the planet to live in.
Over the last week at least 12 people have been killed and 29 wounded in two car bomb blasts in north-western Syria. In late January the Russian air force launched a salvo of 95 air strikes in 24 hours targeting ISIS in eastern Syria after an ambush killed regime troops. The future of America, Russia, Turkey and Iran’s presence in the country remains deeply uncertain and analysts now tend to agree that the state of the economy represents the single biggest threat to President Assad’s rule.
Millions of Syrians live in a reality of a layered crisis. Beyond the legacy of the conflict to date, whether that led to them losing their lives, loved ones, livelihoods or being forced to flee the country, is the squeeze that Covid is putting on already terrible conditions. Syria’s battered healthcare system has no ability to truly contain a virus that has overwhelmed countries with state-of-the-art facilities. Lockdowns in regional countries that host refugees have exacerbated their conditions further with levels of poverty at record highs.
In the last few days organisers have confirmed the latest edition of the Brussels Conferences aimed at ‘supporting Syria and the Region’. With donor fatigue combined with the economic shock of Covid and the emergence of competing crisis, such as the warnings of famine in the Sahel and the dire conditions facing people in Yemen, Syrian advocates will find it even harder to make their case.
The uncertainty and fragility that defines the status quo makes it hard to ‘bet’ or significantly invest in any outcome that can genuinely provide a vision for a better future for Syrians at large. The debate about large scale reconstruction of the country’s destroyed infrastructure seems to have come and gone and the focus of the Regime and its allies at present is on the punitive impact of sanctions.
It is a challenge to ask the question what Syria will and could look like in 2031. One scenario sees the cracks and fissures that crisscross the country becoming harder and more permanent. Will the quasi-state like entity that the Kurdish-led SDF created in the northeast become the de-facto sovereign power much like the Iraqi Kurdistan region became in the 1990s?
Will Turkey’s more strategic investment in the Northwest see a flourishing borderland economy or will it become a Gaza-like enclave cut off from the wider world. Will the isolation of Damascus endure for the medium term? The Assad Regime has been isolated in the past, no more so than following the assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005, but the ability of Damascus to project power and influence across the region allowed it to largely emerge unscathed.
There has unsurprisingly not been much talk of Syria’s traditional foreign policy role in the region over the past ten years. It’s ability to leverage proxy allies against Israel for instance has all but vanished and today we witness a ‘phony war’ whereby Israel strikes at Iranian targets at the country at will with little in the way of recourse.
The return of a more conventional US President to the White House who has committed to reengaging with Iran may have reverberations that lead to a reduction on the squeeze in Syria. An important question to the Biden Administration is whether they will put Iran’s presence and role in Syria onto the table in the wider discussions around the nuclear programme, something that former President Obama singularly failed to do.
Meanwhile the fate of the six million plus Syrian refugees remains the most forgotten of all the casualties of the conflict. The upcoming Brussels conference may be able to find a certain percentage of funds that are needed to meet humanitarian needs, but with no evidence that the majority of these refugees want to return home anytime soon it is time for a serious conversation about their future. The continued limbo of Palestinians refugees in the region decades on from their original displacement is an ominous warning of how these issues can be dramatically side-lined from the global agenda.