This anniversary of the Syrian conflict will not be the last

The revolution was, and still is, about living in freedom and dignity, which Syrians still yearn for, perhaps now more than ever.

Photo by: (AFP)
Photo by: (AFP)

Smoke billows following reported air strikes by Syrian regime forces on Damascus' north eastern rebel-held al-Qaboun surburb on March 15, 2017.

Sharif Nashashibi Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and commentator on Arab affairs. @sharifnash

Six years on, the conflict in Syria is unrecognisable from the relatively simple, hopeful beginnings of the initial revolution. Due to a brutal crackdown, a mass civilian uprising against decades of dictatorship turned into an armed conflict among Syrians backed by foreign powers and fighters, then into its current form: a battleground of foreign powers backed by Syrians.

Now more than ever, Syrians are mere pawns in complex, shifting regional and international rivalries and alliances. It is now arguably more a conflict in Syria than a Syrian conflict. This is true not only on the ground but at the negotiating table.

At times Syrians have been excluded from talks altogether. At times they have been hand-picked by regional and international powers to serve as window dressing. 

At other times they have refused to take part out of a justified sense of futility. Such is the case with yesterday’s scheduled talks in Astana, which the opposition delegation boycotted due to constant violations of the current ‘ceasefire’ by the Assad regime and Russia, a co-broker of the truce.

‘Ceasefires’ that have never ceased fire, and talks that have never produced a breakthrough, are a hallmark of the conflict. One can only call this a failure of diplomacy if one assumes that its aim is to end the conflict via a negotiated agreement. This has never been the case. 

‘Ceasefire’ deals and rounds of talks have served as diplomatic fig leafs for parties that profess peace while pursuing war, and that claim to support Syria’s territorial integrity while partaking in its partition. 

Talk of whether Syria can remain a unitary entity overlooks the fact that it has not been so for years. Syria is now a relic, concept, a dream. The reality has long been a nightmare, one from which there is no hope of waking for the foreseeable future.

The ‘peace process’ resembles that between Israel and the Palestinians: endless process, no peace; an industry built on false equivalencies, imbalances of power and obfuscation; a charade that serves the egos of diplomats, the interests of politicians and the strategies of military commanders. 

Both processes are doomed because they doggedly sidestep the root causes: Israel’s occupation and Assad’s fate. Both Tel Aviv and Damascus feel no need to give way because of the impunity afforded to them by American and Russian backing, respectively.

But while diplomacy goes nowhere, neither are we close to a military solution. Certainly the Assad regime has enjoyed a string of battlefield successes since Russia’s direct entry into the war, and the subsequent beefing up of allied Iranian, Hezbollah, Iraqi and Afghan Shiite forces. 

But these are victories for the regime, not by the regime, whose army has proven incapable of taking and keeping territory without its foreign allies (the irony of their complaints of foreign involvement in the conflict is lost on them). 

The regime would simply not exist without them, but even with the might of Russia’s air force, Iranian commanders and battle-hardened foreign militias, Assad still only controls a minority of the country. Swathes of territory are controlled by a patchwork of Syrian rebel groups, Kurdish forces and ISIS. The assumption that Assad is on the cusp of outright victory is fanciful.

Given his repeated vow to retake all of Syria (further cementing the futility of diplomacy), this anniversary of the conflict will not be the last. We are likely to see shifts in military focus rather than a decrease in intensity. We have seen various phases so far: regime vs rebel, rebel vs rebel and various forces vs ISIS. 

Though still a formidable threat, ISIS is receding territorially, and with competing plans to take its capital Raqqa, we are seeing the convergence of rival forces and the subsequent possibility of direct clashes. This has already occurred between Turkish troops and Syrian rebels on the one hand, and regime and allied forces on the other.

Furthermore, we seem to be entering a new military phase centred around the Kurds, who control much of northern Syria and are among the main territorial beneficiaries of ISIS losses. Turkey is determined to roll back Kurdish gains, which is one of the key objectives of its entry into northern Syria. 

The US and Russia are supporting Syrian Kurds as an effective bulwark against ISIS. But this could change if and when the terrorist group is defeated, particularly if Washington and Moscow want to maintain good relations with regional powerhouse Turkey.

Too much effort has been exerted on Turkish-Russian rapprochement for Moscow to want to jeopardise it for the sake of the Kurds, particularly post-ISIS. And Russia has already agreed to their exclusion from the current ‘ceasefire’ and Astana process at Ankara’s behest.

If Syrian Kurds insist on maintaining their self-declared autonomy or even upgrading to independence, this will jar with Assad’s aim of nationwide control, potentially resulting in fighting between two forces that have so far largely colluded with or ignored each other. Such developments could further change the dynamics on the ground and redraw the map of Syria in unpredictable ways.

“A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic,” said Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. The Syrian death toll is half way there and climbing, but sadly Syrians have long been seen as statistics, their humanity robbed by war, and by the refusal of much of the international community to see them as anything other than security threats, economic drains or demographic challenges.

Amid what the UN human rights chief today described as “the worst man-made disaster the world has seen since World War II,” it is easy to think that the Syrian revolution, in its initial form, died long ago. That is not the case, as evidenced by popular demonstrations that pop up across Syria whenever there is respite from bombings.

The revolution was, and still is, about living in freedom and dignity, which Syrians still yearn for, perhaps now more than ever. It is not just a basic human desire, but a fundamental right. As long as it is denied, it will be sought. The neighbouring Palestinians are a testament to that.

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