After more than six years of a civil war which started in 2011, some analysts are beginning to question whether Syrian war is reaching its conclusion. The situation as of this moment is very much different from when it first started. President Bashar Al Assad seems to be in a secure position while the opposition is still fragmented.
With victories on the battlefields and the race for oil in the northeastern province of DeirEzzor, are all sides attempting to gain an upper hand on the negotiation table in post-war Syria? Whatever the outcome, it is clear that Syria will never be the same country as it was before the war.
How it began
It started out as an event in what we know as Arab Spring. Syrian people were complaining about corruption, political repression, unemployment, and lack of freedom. A small demonstration in the southern city of Deraa sparked a devastating war which consumes the whole country after the violent response from the government.
Instead of reforms, Syrian government vowed to crackdown on dissidents. Since 2011 the opposition has attempted to overthrow Assad’s rule with the support of the West and Gulf countries. However, extremist ideology has also begun to take hold amongst rebel groups. This has made it hard for regional and world powers to back them.
It is obvious as the United States has provided only limited financial and military assistant to the opposition. President Donald Trump has decided to end training of rebel groups altogether.
Turning the tide
Although Syrian government’s grip on power seemed to be threatened in the first 4 years of the war, Russia finally came to Assad’s rescue in 2015. In less than 6 months, Syrian Arab Army has regained momentum thanks to Russian airstrikes and military advisors on the ground.
Until now victory in the war seems to be certain for Assad. It is very likely that he will remain in power in the foreseeable future. Regional and world powers no longer appear to be stick to “Assad Must Go” mantra. Why? How has there been a change in attitude?
Problems of the Opposition
Since the start of the conflict, the opposition has never been united into a single movement with one objective. There are infighting and competing ideologies. Some rebel groups are linked to Al Qaeda. Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham is a well-known branch of Al Qaeda in Syria. They sometimes fight government forces, but they also fight with other rebel groups for influence and dominance.
ISIS and Kurdish militias muddy the waters even further. First of all, ISIS had claimed a large part of eastern and central Syria. Their atrocities have turned the world’s attention away from toppling Assad to combating terrorists. It appears that if the Syrian government collapses, the opposition won’t be able to guarantee a good future for the country since there are jihadists in their ranks.
The Syrian government has been trying to present itself as the protector of the people against extremists. As it controls the coastline and most of the big cities, people in government areas have better living conditions than elsewhere. This projected image has attracted people who are desperate for security and services.
The Kurdish militias have carved up their own territory in northern Syria. With American support, they have recently retaken ISIS’s de facto capital Raqqa. The Kurds support neither the government nor the opposition. They claim to champion autonomy and self-determination.
However, this does not sit well with neighbouring Turkey who is the main backer of the opposition namely the Free Syrian Army. Turkey has, again and again, called on the US to drop its support for the Kurdish militias as it sees as a threat to its security.
Race for oil
It is clear that the balance of power has shifted in Assad’s favour. The rebels are not strong enough to remove him. Their foreign backers have so far been starting to reduce their support. Infighting among them has also contributed to the ineffective chain of command.
ISIS has begun to lose territory in Syria. Two major players are now competing for the capture of oil fields in the northeastern province of DeirEzzor. This oil-rich region is extremely strategic for post-war reconstruction of the country. It will also give leverage on the negotiation table.
Syrian Arab Army and Kurdish forces seem to be at odds with each other over this competition. It is possible that when ISIS is defeated, both sides could turn against each other. Without a common enemy, the fight will be directed elsewhere.
War-weariness seems to be taking place in international politics. Syrian civil war is an extension of the Arab Spring. There are many players in the conflict with different interests. On the one hand, we have the United States and European countries along with Saudi Arabia.
They want to remove Assad from power by arming opposition forces. Yet, as the war drags on, combating ISIS has become the first priority. Assad is no longer the main goal for them. Additionally, the refugee crisis in the region and Europe has created tension and resentment. The war has so far become unpopular.
On the other hand, Russia, Iran, and Lebanese Hezbollah are propping up the Syrian government militarily, financially, and diplomatically. Russia wants to maintain its presence in the region as Syria has had good diplomatic relations with Moscow. Losing a client state means a loss of influence. Also, its military base in the country is an important projection of power.
Iran, at the same time, wants to maintain a land corridor to Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea through Syria. With such geopolitical advantage at stake, Iran has been the main supporter of Bashar Al Assad’s government.
Meanwhile, Turkey seems to be changing its position as well. Once a vocal advocate of Assad-must-go policy, Turkey is now cooperating with Russia and Iran to curb the Kurdish influence in northern Syria. The Astana talks between Syrian government and rebels have brought a ceasefire to certain regions in the country.Without Turkish participation, it would not be possible for such outcome.
Regional and world powers are beginning to shift their priorities in Syria. With the tide of the war turns against the rebels, overthrowing Assad is out of the question. All eyes are looking to post-war reconstruction and the future of the country torn apart by civil war.
The future Syria
The war has affected the very social fabric and networks that had held the society together. Even if Assad wins, his power would be very much limited. The Kurds would not give up their gains without a compromise. The rebels would not renounce the fight without certain conditions. It is not likely for Syrian presidency to maintain the same power as it was before the war.
People have been traumatized by the violent clashes. As it has been proven in other parts of the world, a whole generation of people suffers. The memory would not be forgotten.
The social link has been broken. It is hard to establish that trust back into the society. People may be flocking to the government side for better living conditions, but it does not necessarily mean that they would forget the political repression which gave birth to the fighting in the first place.
The cost of rebuilding a devastated country is enormous. World Bank put the estimation at $226 billion. To foot the bill, the government would need outside support. Therefore, it would take decades for Syria to recover.
Syria is pretty much a proxy war of bigger powers with ambitious goals. Regardless of who wins, Syria is just a valuable piece in the game.
Marmara University, Istanbul, Turkey