Six years ago, 15 teenagers from the southern Syrian city of Deraa graffitied a wall with anti-government slogans, including the phrase synonymous with the popular uprisings taking place across the Arab world: “The people want the overthrow of the regime.” When all 15 teenagers were arrested and tortured, the local community responded violently, and were met with gunfire. Four people died.
Coming at the very start of what became a major uprising, this unflinching response from Bashar al-Assad’s government set the tone for what was to come: a collapse of the national order, a state military prepared to use all means at its disposal against its own people, and one of the 21st-century’s worst humanitarian crises so far.
But as the Syrian conflict enters its seventh year, the battle lines are still fundamentally the same ones Assad used to frame the conflict at its start. According to him, this remains a conflict between the Damascus government on the one hand and Islamic extremists on the other. Over the six years of conflict so far, he has done a lot to make this somewhat arbitrary image of the situation into reality.
As peaceful, democratic Syrians were arrested, besieged and killed, their only true choice was between the barrel bombs and chemical weapons of Assad’s military or beheading at the hands of jihadists. Millions fled the country, while many others joined rebel groups, including ones officially espousing militant religious ideology, to become part of the rebellion against Assad.
A similar pattern plays out on the international stage. Efforts to resolve the conflict from outside are frustrated by the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the complicated interests of Turkey. Then there’s the mutual suspicion between Russia and the US: Russia wants to see IS destroyed just as much as the US does, but like Iran, it stands to lose a key ally in Assad. As these various major powers try to agree on what comes next for Syria, Assad’s future remains the central bone of contention.
For years now, the US and its allies have stuck to the line that any solution to the conflict must be designed to pave the way towards a new, democratic Syria. In light of the severe humanitarian crisis for which Assad’s government is responsible, the US has so far been reluctant to back any political solution where that would allow him to stay in power.
Russia, by contrast, puts a premium on stability, and in its view, only the current government can provide enough security to give all Syrians a more peaceful future. Russia’s involvement is also more directly self-interested than the US’: an estimated 5,000 Russian jihadis have travelled to fight in Syria at various points, creating a long-term security issue that Moscow considers a legitimate cause for intervention.
The template for an inclusive democratic solution was created with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254, which lays out the transition that all states (including the US and Russia) agree must take place to foster a peaceful, united Syria. At the core of it are free and fair elections to pave the way for a Syrian constitution – one to be created by the citizens themselves, not foisted upon them by foreign powers trying to impose their political will.
However, all states agree that there can’t be an inclusive political process without a sustainable ceasefire. This is what makes the Saudi-Iranian proxy war such an obstacle; it puts the individual goals of Iran, Saudi Arabia and the US above those of the very people who bear the brunt of this drawn-out conflict – and in lieu of what looks like an impossible political consensus, all sides are pursuing a military solution.
Redrawing the lines
The Obama administration’s central proposal, such as it was, meant providing support to “moderate” anti-Assad groups and accepting Assad as the only viable interim government that could maintain stability long enough to oversee the transition to a post-conflict democracy. But now that Donald Trump is in the White House, the lines are being redrawn.
It’s not yet clear who Trump’s team will deal with to find a military solution. Most analysts agree that the troops best placed to tackle IS are among Syria’s Kurdish forces. But thanks to a longstanding feud with its own Kurdish minority, Turkey will not co-operate with them for fear of empowering its own Kurdish secessionists.
Given Trump’s apparent openness towards Russia, Syria’s future looks set to follow the Iranian-Russian roadmap: full military force will be deployed against any Islamic extremist opposition, including many rebel groups, with Assad accepted as the only hope of stability in what promises to be a dangerous security vacuum.
But under this plan, the question of future elections will be very tricky. Iran and Russia are both relying on Assad’s Shia regime to govern an overwhelmingly Sunni country; should a stable Syria ever hold democratic elections, the Sunni majority might well elect a Sunni government. If that happened, it would turn Syria away from Russia and Iran towards Saudi Arabia and defeat the point of keeping Assad in the first place.
Assad acting as an interim leader, then, is not a given. But should it happen, it would leave Syria almost back where it began. This conflict is one of the biggest humanitarian crises of our time, with nearly half a million killed, millions displaced internally, and millions more dispersed around the world as refugees – and yet the man most directly responsible is still in power, and may be for some time.
The author would like to thank his postgraduate research student Joseph Royce, at the University of Dundee, for contributing his valuable input for preparing this article.