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Syria, Year Zero - Eight Years After the Beginning of the Uprising

Syria, Year Zero - Eight Years After the Beginning of the Uprising
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

In March 2011 - in the context of the "Arab Spring", which had taken off in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya - the first demonstrations in Damascus and the city of Deraa began to challenge the Syrian regime. Since 1970, in Syria, power has been in the hands of the Assad family, which itself relies on a minority, the Alawis (about 11% of a population of 21 to 22 million inhabitants before the current war, the vast majority of whom are Sunni). The Assad clan and the Alawi community have infiltrated and now overwhelmingly control the one-party system established by the Baath party, as well as the country’s powerful security services. They also managed to co-opt part of the Sunni bourgeoisie working in the business sector. The Alawi people consider their retention of power to be a matter of life and death for their community.
All observers familiar with Syrian affairs knew that, in the event of a crisis threatening the regime - such as the one that occurred in the early 1980s and led to the 1982 Hama massacre (probably 20,000 deaths) - the Alawis would fight mercilessly to maintain their control over the country. The Alawis, or at least the Assad, could not envisage any sharing of power whatsoever. The informed observers were, however, surprised by the fact that the regime sent elite troops to Deraa and fired at the crowd in March-April 2011, i.e. at the very beginning of the movement, when the latter was still fairly benign and when there was still ample space for a political settlement.
Perhaps, in the minds of Bashar al-Assad and his advisors, was it a matter of hitting the people hard in order to dissuade them from following the example of other Arab Spring uprisings. The brutality of the repression had the exact opposite effect.
Eight years later, the prevailing feeling, no matter one’s view on the matter, can be summed up in just a few words: Syria, year zero.

There are hardly any young civilians left in Syria: they are either dead, enrolled in the army or militias.

"Syria, year zero", first makes sense when we look at the absolute disaster that has struck the country. A report published by the newspaper Le Monde on 17 March outlines the following facts: the Syrian conflict cost the country between 300,000 and 500,000 deaths; about 7 million refugees (including 5.6 million registered by UNHCR) fled the country; there are reportedly 1.5 million disabled people and 80,000 detainees. When adding these figures together, Le Monde concludes that Syria has lost nearly half of its population.

Moreover, over 6 million Syrians qualify as "internally displaced people". There are hardly any young civilians left in Syria: they are either dead, enrolled in the army or militias, or they are hiding to escape forced conscription. According to the UNESCO, only 37% of Syrian children have access to primary education (compared to 91% before 2011). 11% of hospitals were destroyed and 45% damaged. It is estimated that a third of the urban fabric has been destroyed. There is virtually no production facilities left, and most of the strategic resources - hydroelectric dams, hydrocarbon fields, phosphate mines (surrendered to the Russians) - circumvent the control of the Damascus authorities.

Master of the ruins

Politically, Assad is considered to be the winner of the ending civil war. However, a third of Syrian territory remains in the hands of the Turks in the North, of Kurdish militias supported by the Americans in the North-West, and of a last yet very powerful group of jihadists (Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS) in Idlib province. On the other hand, the Syrian President is hardly anything more than the proxy of the Iranians and the Russians who, from 2012 for the former and 2015 for the latter, have saved his regime and are painstakingly sustaining it. Shiite militias of all nationalities are crisscrossing the country, and Russian and Iranian officers are infiltrating all chains of command.
The expression "Syria, year zero" can also be used to mean something else. Eight years later, nothing is really settled for the Syrians, nor for the many regional or international players who have turned the Syrian crisis into what can be called a globalized civil war.
In Syria, Russian and Iranian supporters of Bashar al-Assad's regime anticipate that the latter will inevitably be consolidated. They are counting on the population’s weariness to gradually restore order. They note a beginning of a normalization of relations with other Arab countries, with, for instance, the reopening of the United Arab Emirates Embassy, and recent discussions regarding Syria's readmission to the Arab League. The Russians keep telling the Europeans that a positive attitude towards the reconstruction of the country would benefit them if they want to facilitate the return of refugees. According to Moscow’s narrative, there is a risk that Europeans will lose all leverage if they don’t commit on this matter, which would lead their traditional presence in the Levant to be replaced by that of China.

According to this approach, the areas of the Syrian territory that remain outside of Damascus' control are doomed to return within it at one point or another. The first step will be an offensive on Idlib to dislodge HTS. Then, an agreement will eventually be reached between Damascus and the Kurds - given Washington's obvious desire not to dwell on the banks of the Euphrates. A compromise will need to be found with Turkey, but this doesn’t seem completely out of reach given that Vladimir Putin has been able to handle Mr Erdogan much better than Western leaders so far.

Shiite militias of all nationalities are crisscrossing the country, and Russian and Iranian officers are infiltrating all chains of command.

To put it bluntly: the scenario where the Assad regime gradually consolidates despite its current state of great weakness cannot be ruled out, especially if Western opinions shift from silence in the face of the regime's mass crimes to outright assent. And if the incredible disregard for the sensitivity of the Arab world's opinions continues to be a commonplace in Washington, as suggested by Donald Trump's decision to recognize Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights. By further discrediting the United States in the eyes of the Syrians, this decision benefits both Assad and Netanyahu.

A not so inevitable victory

However, other factors cast doubt on the inevitability of Assad's victory. Domestically speaking, demonstrations persist, even where the central government has restored its authority, including in Deraa. Protests are multiplying even within the regime's base, which notes that victory in no way alleviates the state of generalized shortage. Above all, the Syrian regime proves its inability to change its modus operandi on a daily basis. It puts obstacles in the way of the return of refugees (e.g. expropriations), which is the Russians’ main "selling point" when trying to persuade Europeans. It continues to arrest and execute rallied rebels, or sometimes even refugees who have taken the risk of returning to their home country. It shows no willingness to open up, and even goes so far as implementing a program to resettle Hafez al-Assad's statutes.
The Syrian President certainly intends to take advantage of the inevitable rivalry between Russia and Iran, which many signals hint at (e.g. the competition for the management of the port of Latakia, the exclusion of Maher al-Assad by the Russians). Yet he might get his fingers burnt by playing this game. Moreover, the determining factor for any possible consolidation of the regime lies in the geopolitical equation.

The Trump administration, despite its versatility and unpredictability, seems to have understood that its complete disengagement from Syrian affairs would play into the hands of the Iranians.

For the time being, the Trump administration, despite its versatility and unpredictability, seems to have understood that its complete disengagement from Syrian affairs would play into the hands of the Iranians. Strangely enough, below the radar (through the new sanctions, for example), the current administration is much more offensive towards the Syrian regime than Obama’s was. Israel, with or without Netanyahu, can hardly accept the importance gained by Hezbollah and Iran in neighboring Syria. Russia's rewarding role as a regulator of Israeli strikes against Iranian positions in Syria can quickly become uncomfortable if the latent conflict between the two enemies escalates and becomes uncontrollable. Meanwhile, Turkey may wish to make a deal with Russia, but such a deal will hardly be acceptable to both Ankara and Damascus.

In short, the current unstable balance between the hostile forces that observe and occasionally strike each other on the Syrian territory does not provide a very solid basis for the consolidation of the regime. Now that Daesh has been defeated, a recurring idea in Western chancelleries is that the perpetuation of the Assad reign in Damascus means the extension of the conditions of public discontent that have contributed to the emergence of major terrorist groups. Some signs, such as legal actions undertaken in Germany and France against agents of the Syrian regime, seem to indicate that the disqualification of the Assad clan remains possible in Western countries.
Many Syrians, no matter their opinion, react relatively similarly when they discuss the situation in their country: "All this for that! So many deaths and destruction only to come back to this stage!". This is true: the country has been bled dry, the West has suffered a major strategic setback in Syria, the Russians and Iranians have scored very important points, the Daesh threat has been largely (if not entirely) removed, and Assad is back on track. Yet, in the end, so much remains to be done to find a way out of the Syrian crisis.


Copyright : Delil souleiman / AFP

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