The regime of President Bashar al-Assad is winning the decade-old civil war in Syria. With the help of like-minded allies Iran and Russia, Assad is ruthlessly mopping up his remaining opposition. After the defeat of the ISIS Caliphate, the West has no security interests or oil reserves to protect in Syria. Its authoritarian Arab neighbors wouldn’t like to see a democratic and free Syria either. The nations who earlier vociferously called for the removal of the regime have lost interest. Once in control of only 20% of its territory, the Assad dynasty has another lease on life as a hapless people suffer.
The Syrian conflict began in 2011 with peaceful pro-democracy protests against autocratic rule. The protests were part of the “Arab Spring” uprisings in the region. At first, the Assad regime made conciliatory gestures. It released political prisoners, dismissed the government, and lifted the 48-year-old state of emergency. But when the challenges to the regime grew, it sent in troops and tanks to crush the revolt.
The conflict mushroomed into a brutal civil and proxy war that drew in regional and global powers. The now nearly defeated opposition to the regime attracted regional and international support. But as the armed rebellion evolved, the Islamists and jihadists, whose brutal tactics caused global outrage, soon outnumbered the mostly Sunni secular leadership.
Periodic blood-letting and foreign interventions are part of Syria’s short tortured history. Syria fell in the French sphere of influence after the notorious Anglo-French Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. The Agreement divided up the remains of the Ottoman empire. Once in charge, the French bombarded Damascus, changed rulers in the territory at will, and pacified it with martial law when needed. After independence in 1946, Syria went through twenty coups at an average of one a year, until Hafez al-Assad assumed power in 1970—in another coup. More and more repressive rule and fear held the country together.
But in the past ten years, conditions in Syria have hit a new low, with hundreds of thousands dead and millions of refugees. According to a UN commission of inquiry, all parties to the conflict have committed war crimes – including murder, torture, rape and enforced disappearances. Syria needs billions of dollars for humanitarian aid to the injured, the permanently disabled and internal refugees and to rebuild the country once the violence stops. Neighboring Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Europe have to cope with millions of Syrian refugees.
An Assad victory with the help of Russian air power and intelligence ensures that Syria will remain a client state of Russia. Russia (and the former Soviet Union) pumped in billions in economic and military aid to Syria since the 1960s. It maintained good relations with leaders from the Sunni majority and the Alawites minority who have ruled Syria.
The Syria-Russian equation is in line with the institutionalization of client-patron relationships which began with the British and the French. Notable others are Egypt and Jordan with the United States in the region. The post-colonial world is littered with examples of client states, whose governments enjoyed little popular support, beholden for survival to patrons like the USA and Russia.
The Iranian boots on the ground to support Assad reflect a commonality of interests against Western hegemony, Palestinian resistance against Israel, and Shiite Iran’s ambitions in the region versus rival Sunni Saudi Arabia. Otherwise, the secular Assad regime has little in common with Iran’s clerical rulers. Iran has spent billions of dollars to bolster the Assad dictatorship, furnished military advisers and subsidized weapons, and lines of credit and oil transfers.
Syria has always been a fragile country with only a veneer of statehood. There is no real national identity binding the people together. The permanent state of war with Israel and internal repression doesn’t allow the development of strong public institutions, a vocal civil society, and a stable economy. The scale of the current devastation shows that a viable and functioning Syrian state isn’t on the horizon soon.
The other challenge in Syria, as in other parts of the Middle East, is the dark hundred-year shadow of Sykes-Picot. It means living with artificially created borders, sectarian, and ethnic divides. There is also the ever-lurking issue of the undefined role of Islam in society and politics. The authoritarian system, imposed with external backing, can temporarily paper over the internal fissures. But it won’t be able to ensure that a sovereign Syria can provide lasting safety and security to its people. We can expect more innocent blood to flow as force and acts of bestiality settle internal conflicts, as they always have.
Saad Hafiz is an analyst and commentator on politics, peace, and security issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.