The first hole is that what we have witnessed in Syria over the past seven years was not a war in any classical sense of the term. What we saw was several wars woven into each other, in the context of a humanitarian disaster sharpened by rivalry among a dozen cynical powers in pursuit of contradictory goals. In that sense, far from being at the end of anything in Syria, we may be at the beginning of a new phase in this historic tragedy.
The second hole is that even if we focus on any of the parallel wars in Syria, we would still find it hard to claim that we have reached the end. The Assad regime has been cut down in size, practically limited to a pocket of territory, but it is still strong enough not to raise its hands in surrender. As for Daesh, its “caliphate” has seen its territory reduced from almost 4,000 square miles to just over 2,700.
The Syrian armed opposition groups have also suffered major setbacks, and are now cantoned in part of Idlib province plus an archipelago of tiny possessions dotting the country. As for Syrian Kurds, having played a complicated game via contradictory alliances, they seem likely to end up with almost nothing but deep chagrin.
Russia, too, has been forced to face the limits of its power. It may have secured a foothold in the Mediterranean, but it is fully conscious of the difficulty of protecting it against future turmoil.
In the forthcoming Russian elections, we may hear President Vladimir Putin, once again a candidate for his own succession, claim — or at least hint at — some kind of victory in Syria. But being an intelligent leader, he surely knows that no war is ever won until one side admits defeat.
Turkey is also discovering the limits of its ability to score points in Syria. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s jingoistic dash into Syria may remain popular enough in Turkey for a few more months to enable him to bring forward the date of the historic elections he plans to hold, and to make sure he emerges victorious. But what happens after that is far from certain, except that getting involved in Syria will not be as low-cost as Erdogan pretends.
Iran’s situation is even more pitiful. Having spent vast sums of money and lost many men — including more than 400 senior officers — in this meaningless fight, the mullahs had hoped to end up with a corridor to the Mediterranean with a contiguous passage through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. It is now clear they will not get that.
Having spent vast sums of money and lost many men — including more than 400 senior officers — in this meaningless fight, the Iranian mullahs had hoped to end up with a corridor to the Mediterranean with a contiguous passage through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. It is now clear they will not get that.
Whatever presence they may build in Syria close to Lebanon will be vulnerable to Israeli air attacks that Iran, having no air force in Syria, will not be able to counter. The Lebanese, Afghan and Pakistani mercenaries that Iran has assembled close to the Lebanese border in Syria could end up as fish in a barrel.
Israel, which has just started to dip a toe in this witches’ brew, may well be happy to see Syria removed as a credible threat for the foreseeable future. But Syria under the Assad clan was never an active danger to Israel, while Syria as a patchwork of uncontrollable groups may well become a nuisance if not an existential threat.
The trouble is that in this many-sided war, no side is yet ready to raise the white flag. By just saying “no,” all sides stay in the game, deadly though it is. The Syrian situation, a tragedy that started as a civil war and then morphed into a prolonged and multifaceted jumble of conflicts, is not unique. We have had similar situations in Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and, in a sense, even Afghanistan for decades.
In all such situations, the received idea is that we are almost at the end of conflict. The trouble is that in such situations, those involved end up getting used to a new status quo that, although not delivering what they hoped for, is not too costly to require dramatic withdrawal. A low-intensity war could go on and on, even forever if necessary.
So is there an alternative to the emerging status quo? The theoretical answer is yes. But to shape an alternative, all sides must first admit that the “war” is not over, and that none of them is likely to score a clear-cut victory. Even if, in a fantasy world, the whole of Syria was to be presented to any of the protagonists on a platter, none would be able to hold it together, let alone benefit from it. Nothing short of a serious international effort could recreate an entity that has ceased to exist as a nation-state. And such an effort may be possible on the basis of full inclusion of all the protagonists, used to a game of exclusion as they all are.
Putin’s idea of “de-escalation zones” may be a good start, provided it is linked to the Geneva accords and the creation of an international supervisory mechanism for a transition period aimed at paving the way for massive reconstruction financed by the global community. A similar formula produced positive results in other places such as Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, albeit on a much smaller scale and in far less complicated situations.
It is far from certain that such a formula would find support among the protagonists. But there is a glimmer of hope in the fact that almost all of them are beginning to look for a way out of this maze.
• Amir Taheri was executive editor in chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at, or written for, innumerable publications and published 11 books.
— Originally published in Asharq Al-Awsat.