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Understanding Syria's Enduring Crisis

Understanding Syria's Enduring Crisis
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

As the world watches Ukraine, a bitter anniversary is being marked this year in Syria, where the country is entering its second decade of civil war. Eleven years after the uprising, the conflict has taken a huge toll on Syrians. Today, the country is subject to the influence of foreign forces and suffering from a severe economic and humanitarian crisis. For Unresolved Crises, we asked Michel Duclos, former Ambassador to Syria and our Special Advisor for Geopolitics, to update us on the state on the ground. He gives an assessment of a divided Syria, walks us through geopolitical power plays, and suggests how the northeastern part of the country if stabilized, could potentially change the conflict's dynamics. To learn more about our work on crisis-affected zones, read the series’ analyses on Afghanistan and Yemen.

Eleven years after the conflict began, Syria is still mired in war. The hostilities have reached a violent and prolonged stalemate. Could you briefly introduce the main actors in the conflict and describe their current geopolitical interests?

The central conflict in Syria is obviously one opposing the regime and its own people. But the battle is essentially over now that al-Assad prevailed, even though he has controlled only two-thirds of the country for some time. Still, some pockets of resistance remain throughout the country, including Salafi groups in the northwest around Idlib as well as Kurdish-dominated regions in the northeast. Assad is not engaged in direct combat with the Kurds, but he continues to bomb the Idlib region controlled by the Salafi movements.

The second piece of the puzzle is that Syria continues to be the scene of a confrontation between Iran and Israel, with Russia having positioned itself as a mediator between the rivaling nations. On top of this, the Turkish military continues to fight the Syrian Kurds (YPG militia). Let’s also not forget the conflict between the United States (and their allies) and the Islamic State in the northeast, even though the militant group is still somewhat nascent. The Islamic State is the reason why American and French special forces were deployed in the northeast. This fuelled enduring tensions between the Syrian regime, Russia (and to some extent Turkey) and the West in Syria. All of these layers are inextricably intertwined and underpinned by persistent tensions between Russia, Turkey and Iran on one side, and the West on the other, as well as broader efforts by the Arab League to normalize relations with Damascus. Assad's trip to the United Arab Emirates in March 2022 marked his first official visit to an Arab country since the Syrian war erupted in 2011. Any engagement with Syria runs counter to the West's policy. A final point on the presence of the Islamic State and its allies. The Islamic State has not been eradicated from Iraq. A connection exists between what is happening in Iraq and Syria in terms of terrorism - and the resurgence of the Islamic State in Syria cannot be ruled out.

What can the international community do at this stage? What is the status of the political process led by the United Nations? 

At the moment, there is no process in place to resolve the conflict in Syria, although humanitarian policies are being implemented. The vast majority of Syrians, whether under Assad's control or not, live below the poverty line and suffer from famine and infectious diseases. According to the latest estimates, the number of Syrians in need of humanitarian aid has continued to increase since January, reaching 14.6 million people (out of a total population of 18 million). Food insecurity across Syria is also exacerbated by the conflict in Ukraine which has driven up the prices of energy and wheat.

The Syrian regime routinely confiscates supplies from relief convoys sent by the United Nations (UN) and European Union (EU).

Sadly, the Syrian regime routinely confiscates supplies from relief convoys sent by the United Nations (UN) and European Union (EU). Until a few years ago, the UN was able to sidestep Damascus by using border crossings to deliver humanitarian aid. Russia has succeeded in gradually closing these access points. While one of them remains open in the northeast, Russia will likely cast a veto to block the renewal of UN Security Council Resolution 2642 allowing cross-border humanitarian access into Syria.

Add this to the fact that there are currently fewer Syrians living in their homes than Syrians who have been forced to flee, whether elsewhere in Syria or abroad. Syrian refugees have placed a heavy burden on countries like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. For a number of years, governments have gone to great lengths to repatriate them back to Syria. But this has proved to be a difficult sell given that the few Syrians who chose to come home have either been arrested, jailed or faced forced conscription into the regime's armed forces. As these repatriation attempts failed, so did Russia's grand plan to guarantee that displaced Syrians would return in droves in exchange for the normalization of Assad’s relations with the West and countries in the region. 

There is also a worrying trend, including in France, to consider the country as "stabilized", and as such, to send Syrian asylum seekers back to Syria. This trend must be severely condemned. 

The involvement of external actors has exacerbated and protracted the conflict, making it unlikely that a lasting political settlement will emerge. But what makes Syria different from other conflicts?

The obstacle to conflict resolution is not the number of actors but the nature of the regime itself. Syria is a mosaic of minorities inherited from the Ottoman era. The country's "Ottoman" demography coupled with the nature of its regime is what makes Syria so distinctive today. Power is wielded by a dictator; the dictator is supported by a clan; the clan controls the Alawite minority. The Alawite minority controls the Sunni majority through a coalition with other minorities and the co-option of some Sunni elites… it's a very peculiar system of power, and a difficult one to topple. Pitting minorities against the Sunni majority was child's play for the regime. Assad was quickly able to establish the narrative that the conflict was one side versus another and that it was supported from abroad. This makes it difficult to agree on a settlement process, especially since the Syrian regime is brutal, uncompromising and resilient by nature.

The real problem is not the multiplicity of interests between regional and international actors, but rather the fact that these interests do not align. At first, Iran and Russia formed a coalition to support the regime, while Western and Arab countries wanted to overthrow it (or at least for it to undergo radical change). But at one point, Turkey reached an agreement with Iran and Russia to engage in conflict management rather than conflict resolution. 

The real problem is not the multiplicity of interests between regional and international actors.

Jointly agreed de-escalation zones paved the way for Turkey to gain influence and Russia and Iran to make progress in recapturing the country for the regime. Bashar al-Assad has managed to cling to power owing to the auspicious constellation formed by Iran, Russia and Israel, coupled with somewhat neutral Americans and Turks who are starting to see some logic behind Assad remaining in power.

This combination of circumstances has not allowed the UN to establish a process for finding a solution. The real question is whether it makes sense for the UN to maintain a Special Envoy for Syria. The diplomat is supposed to bring the different parties together in Geneva, but the process has been overly formal and subverted from within by Russia and the Assad regime. Additionally, the United States and its allies in the region and Europe have not been sufficiently committed to rectifying the ineffective UN process. Russia set up the Astana process with Iran and Turkey, and we should point out that they did so without obtaining anything from the regime. In addition, the United Nations plays an often-contested role through its various agencies, which contribute a great deal to managing the conflict’s humanitarian efforts. Yet by doing so, they also end up contributing to the regime’s survival.

How would you describe the "resilience" of the Syrian regime? How is the government perceived by the Syrian people?

The regime is extremely unpopular but its resilience does not depend on its popularity. Assad's strongholds themselves are not immune to rebellion, as shown with uprisings in Al-Sawda, Daraa and certain Druze communities (village and mountain dwellers). Strong resentment is even harbored by the Alawite minority against the Assad clan and its allies in Damascus. In some ways, Alawites have suffered proportionately more than the rest of the population.

The Assad regime is one that relies on terror and community support to survive.

In poor Alawite villages, many young people have been mutilated or killed while defending the regime against insurgencies. Still, the Alawite base is convinced that if Assad falls from power, it will find itself at the mercy of the Sunni majority's wrath. The Assad regime is one that relies on terror and community support to survive. The situation is unlikely to change as long as Iran, Israel and Russia support Assad.

Is Syria slowly turning into a narco-state?

The drug trade involving captagon gained significant importance. The stimulant, once associated with Islamic State jihadists, sustains an illegal industry that supports the Assad regime, but also many of its enemies. According to recent estimates, captagon exports were valued at $3.5 billion (4.2 times the "official export" figure) - in a country with a GDP estimated to be between $20-30 billion. The growing captagon trade has impacted Jordan, Turkey and Iraq, yet it was initially intended for Gulf states, Egypt and Europe. To grow this industry, Syria relied on Iran and especially Lebanon's powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah group, which has a long history of drug trafficking. Captagon is now by far Syria's biggest and most valuable export, exceeding all legal exports combined according to estimates. One could say it has become a defining feature of the Assad regime.

With Russia (Assad's main ally) engaged in its war against Ukraine since February, it is also natural to wonder how this conflict can change the state of affairs in Syria. 

  • The effects of the war in Ukraine are not immediately evident, but I see three possible scenarios: 

  • The first is the status quo. Here, Russians maintain enough of a presence in Syria to preserve the regime's stability and enough influence in the region to avoid upsetting the balance between Turkey, Iran, Israel, the West and Arab states. 

  • The second relates to Iran’s influence which is likely to ramp up given that Russia has fewer resources to support the regime and Moscow's attention has shifted to Ukraine. Turkey could also gain more power with its troops poised to conquer additional territory in northern Syria. 

  • Lastly, Assad's fate could be decided in Kherson, Mariupol and Crimea. If Russia suffers a decisive defeat in Ukraine, it is difficult to imagine that Assad would face anything less than major consequences, especially if Iran continues to undergo internal challenges (in light of sweeping protests following Mahsa Amini's death) and external ones (if Tehran closes in on developing nuclear weapons, which could trigger a response from the United States and Israel). 

Before even beginning to think about a solution to the Syrian war - an end to this endless war - Russian, Israel/Arab and US/Europe interests must shift. Is it possible for all these interests to converge in order to find a way out of the conflict and remove Assad from power? This question lies at the heart of the Syrian crisis.

The only real advantage that the US and its allies possess is to maintain a presence in northeast Syria. If an autonomous, stable and prosperous area were to emerge there (showcasing what Syrians can accomplish when freed from Assad's power grip) this would change the reality and give more bargaining power to the US and its allies involved in supporting the autonomous administration of northeastern Syria. It's difficult to block the will of Arab countries wanting to normalize ties with Damascus. But Arab states could be requested normalize ties only if the Assad regime concretely accepts a decentralization plan implying full autonomy of liberated areas.

Before even beginning to think about a solution to the Syrian war - an end to this endless war - Russian, Israel/Arab and US/Europe interests must shift.

Turkey, too, may choose to normalize its relationship with Assad (something Russia has been trying to encourage) to have free rein in the north. Erdoğan has been clear about his intention to annihilate Syrian Kurds and acquire an area of influence in Syria to rid himself of Syrians who pursued asylum on Turkish soil. It is up to us, the West, to provide an alternative option for Ankara, one where northeastern Syria is autonomous and stable, and presents no threat to Turkey. 

The UN failed Syria. Has the conflict marked the UN system's end?

International institutions never die. However, there is something rather unique about the Syrian case. Russian obstruction has taken an increasing toll on the UN Security Council since the war started. Russia belongs to an institutional body that gives it a privileged place in the world, but it will not hesitate to hamstring or weaken this institution despite being a member.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the UN, has stressed that decisions are no longer made by the Security Council but by the General Assembly and "coalitions of the willing". If Syria does not prove to mark the beginning of the end for the Security Council, it will have at least considerably weakened this emblematic body. 

Because Syria is not a member of the International Criminal Court, it is not subject to its jurisdiction. The international community is consequently deprived of an important instrument to hold Assad accountable for his crimes. Given the impunity for crimes committed, what can be done?

The UN and the General Assembly have set up an "international, impartial and independent mechanism" (IIIM) to gather evidence that could one day be used in a judicial process against the regime and the Islamic State. The IIIM represents a step forward in international criminal justice. However, it was not enough to trigger the delegitimization of the Assad regime: international opinion seems to grow used to the scars of crime.

This leads me to take a different look at the Ukrainian question. The Ukrainians are making their own effort to gather war crimes evidence committed by the Russians, but this effort will not be enough. It does not fundamentally change the public's view and preserves the appearance of legitimacy in a criminal regime. As long as there is no court, these efforts will fall short. This then begs the question: shouldn't this case warrant a special court? There will be none for Syria (the Syrian case proved it won't galvanize enough interest). For Russia and Ukraine, a special court could be established but it would probably examine crimes of "aggression" which cannot be judged by the International Criminal Court (the ICC's jurisdiction for crimes of aggression is only valid for States Parties to the Rome Statute, which neither applies to Russia nor for Ukraine). If a special court is created someday by the international community to hold Russia accountable (or at least its leaders), we may be able to reverse the trend of impunity for war crimes committed in Syria by the Assad regime.


Copyright: Delil SOULEIMAN / AFP

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