The scope of the devastation, the almost unimaginable human suffering and the involvement of multiple outside actors largely explain why the conflict has become so difficult to resolve. Assad’s so-called victory has come at a tremendous cost in the form of more than 400,000 people dead, almost 10 million displaced both inside and outside the country, and entire cities reduced to rubble.
The idea of his continuing in power is abhorrent to millions of Syrians and many others worldwide. And while the terrorist group Daesh has lost virtually all the territory it once controlled, primarily in eastern Syria, various opposition groups continue to control pockets in the west and north, and are still mounting attacks against regime forces.
Making the conflict’s trajectory even less predictable is the fact that various outside actors — including the US, Russia, Iran, Turkey, and a host of militias and foreign fighters, including the Lebanese Hezbollah group — have a vested interest in ensuring that the economic and military costs they incurred, not to mention political capital, were not for naught.
While Russian President Vladimir Putin last month implied that the conflict was essentially over, it is unlikely to end in 2018. Last year was a big one for Russia in Syria. Its air cover played a major role in helping the regime regain territory it had lost to either the opposition or Daesh. Putin made a surprise visit last month to Syria, where he said the country “had been preserved” and Russian troops would begin withdrawing.
But there are strong indications that Russia will continue to have a military presence for the foreseeable future, especially given its air base in Khmeimim and naval base in Tartus. While Putin did demonstrate his country’s military capabilities, he is also trying to broker a political resolution between the regime and the opposition by organizing a conference in Sochi later this month. What will come of the meeting is anyone’s guess.
The move was seen by some as an effort to supplant, not necessarily compliment, the Geneva process that began under UN auspices in 2012. Putin also played a central role in another conference in Astana that brought together Iran, Russia and Turkey to agree on “de-escalation zones.” But recent reports suggest that violence has resumed in some of these zones, especially Eastern Ghouta and Idlib.
It was not only Russia that declared its troops victorious in Syria. America has also touted Daesh’s loss of most of its territories, including Raqqa, at the hands of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), composed of Arab and Kurdish fighters. Reports suggest that US advisers will stay in Syria to ensure that Daesh is completely defeated and does not re-emerge, and to help create safe zones.
The idea of Assad continuing in power is abhorrent to millions of Syrians and many others worldwide.
Then there is Turkey, whose President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently called Assad a “terrorist” who cannot be part of Syria’s future. Turkey launched a military operation in Syria last year called Euphrates Shield to move Daesh forces away from its border and keep at bay the Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara regards as related to domestic Kurdish adversaries. Turkey also host hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, giving it a different kind of stake in the conflict.
Not to be overlooked, Iran and a host of Shiite militant groups, including Hezbollah, have played a major role in propping up the Assad regime. Iran and its Lebanese proxy have provided thousands of troops and advisers to help Assad conduct his brutal campaign, which has included targeting civilian centers with chemical weapons on multiple occasions. Their involvement has also added a decidedly sectarian undertone to the conflict, which began as a peaceful protest against Assad’s oppressive rule.
Some officials with international organizations seeking to end the conflict or provide badly needed humanitarian aid have expressed dismay at the scope of the devastation in Syria. Several maintain that not since the horrors of World War II has there been this level of destruction.
Where the UN- or Russian-sponsored peace talks lead is impossible to predict, but one thing is for sure: When the violence finally does stop, Syria’s road to recovery will be a very long one indeed.
• Fahad Nazer is a political consultant to the Saudi Embassy in Washington, and an international fellow at the National Council on US Arab Relations. He does not represent or speak on behalf of either organization. Twitter: @fanazer