Syria, after 10 years of conflict: No war and no peace
Why We Wrote This
Syria’s biggest battles have quieted, and competing powers are holding each other mostly in check. But a decade into the conflict, the tabulation of inhumanity and suffering is far from complete.
Internally displaced Syrians warm themselves around a fire at a camp in the countryside near Aleppo, northern Syria, Dec. 17, 2020.
March 3, 2021
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Viewed from afar, the Syrian conflict marking its 10th anniversary March 11 has ground to a stalemate. President Bashar al-Assad has neither completely won, nor lost. Despite Russian and Iranian backing, sizable parts of his country remain beyond his reach.
But the situation on the ground is not static. Everywhere the humanitarian toll mounts. After 400,000 dead, the Syrian people are confronting the tabulation of war crimes that include more than 300 documented uses of chemical weapons, torture, and indiscriminate attacks on cities and hospitals.
Syria’s battlefields are largely quiet, but years of United Nations peace efforts have made no headway. The United States told the Security Council in December that Damascus was preparing “to carry out a sham presidential election in 2021 and wash its hands of the U.N.-facilitated political process.”
The human cost is almost immeasurable. Nearly 60% of Syrians are “food insecure,” the World Food Program reported last month. And the reckoning is far from over. In a bid to hold Mr. Assad and his inner circle accountable, a complaint was filed in France with a special war crimes unit this week focusing on the August 2013 chemical weapons attacks in eastern Ghouta that left 1,400 dead.
Viewed from afar, the Syrian conflict marking its 10-year milestone March 11 has ground to a stalemate. President Bashar al-Assad has neither completely won, nor lost. He is in charge, with Russian and Iranian backing, though sizable parts of his country remain out of the reach of his exhausted forces and allies.
But on the ground, the situation overall is not static. In the east, Islamic State remnants are waging a lethal guerrilla campaign, and everywhere the humanitarian costs continue to mount. After 400,000 dead, the Syrian people are confronting a collapsed economy, deepening food insecurity, and the tabulation of war crimes that include more than 300 documented uses of chemical weapons, torture, and indiscriminate attacks on cities and hospitals.
Is there still a war?
The battlefield itself has been largely quiet for a year. A Russian-Turkish cease-fire has mostly held since Turkish military intervention prevented Syrian troops – supported by Russian air power – from recapturing rebel-held Idlib province in northwestern Syria. The enclave is home to 3 million civilians and a host of jihadi actors that include 10,000 armed militants – most of whom washed up in Idlib as part of previous surrender agreements elsewhere in the country.
Years of United Nations peace efforts have made no headway, including Security Council Resolution 2254, which in December 2015 laid out a political road map meant to establish “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance” within six months, and a new constitution.
If anything, those aspirations have been marked only by their breach. Damascus, for example, reluctantly sent a delegation to Geneva to take part in nonbinding, U.N.-facilitated efforts to write an inclusive constitution that finally began in October 2019.
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But by late January this year, after the fifth session in 16 months, delegates had failed to even start composing a draft. When the government side rejected the latest proposals, U.N. Special Envoy Geir Pedersen expressed his frustration, saying, “We can’t continue like this.”
Chances are slim Mr. Assad will accept negotiating away his grip on power to opponents he deems “terrorists.” He has not recaptured “every inch” of Syria, as he once vowed, but nevertheless is preparing for elections this spring.
The United States told the Security Council in December it was “increasingly apparent” that Damascus “is delaying the [constitution] Committee’s work to buy time as it prepares to carry out a sham presidential election in 2021 and wash its hands of the U.N.-facilitated political process.”
Who is in Syria?
The short answer: Nearly everyone who has battled in this proxy war is still on the ground, ensuring that Syria remains physically split into different areas of control.
Iran, which was among the first to come to Mr. Assad’s side, enlisted the powerful fighting capabilities of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and later marshaled Shiite militias from Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S., Turkey, and their Persian Gulf allies made halfhearted efforts to support anti-government rebels, but the regime in Damascus was kept on life support by Iran until Russia intervened with air power in September 2015. Moscow irreversibly turned the tide of the war in Mr. Assad’s favor.
Yet today, Turkey has roughly 12,000 troops in northwest Syria, ostensibly to create a “safe zone” for refugees and to defend Idlib. The Turks also aim to prevent an exodus of more Syrians (and jihadi militants) across the border into Turkey, where some 3.6 million registered refugees already reside, as well as to check Kurdish forces it deems a security threat.
And in the oil-rich northeast, several hundred U.S. troops – left over from the yearslong fight against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq – support a Syrian Kurdish paramilitary force of more than 100,000 fighters that deprives Damascus of one-quarter of its territory and 80% of its resources.
What is the human cost?
In terms of the damaged social fabric and wrecked economy, almost immeasurable. Syria’s currency has collapsed and inflation is skyrocketing, with the price of cooking oil alone quintupling in the past year.
Some 12.6 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes – many forced to move multiple times – and 6.6 million of those have fled the country. Physicians for Human Rights has documented nearly 600 regime attacks on medical facilities since 2011, 90% of them by regime forces.
And the International Rescue Committee, in a survey of several hundred Syrians and 74 health workers released March 3, deplored how the regime “war strategy has turned hospitals from safe havens into no-go zones where Syrian civilians now fear for their lives.”
Indeed, Mr. Assad now presides over a wasteland in which a record 12.4 million people – nearly 60% of Syria’s population – are “food insecure,” according to a report by the U.N.’s World Food Program last month. In the past year alone, the number of Syrians the U.N. deems “severely food insecure,” such that they can’t survive without assistance, has doubled to 1.8 million.
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“The situation has never been worse,” said WFP’s Syria Director Sean O’Brien.
And the reckoning is far from over. In a bid to hold Mr. Assad and his inner circle accountable, a complaint was filed in France with a special war crimes unit this week, focusing on the August 2013 chemical weapons attacks in eastern Ghouta that left 1,400 dead. A similar complaint was filed in Germany in October.
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