Raqqa in 2017

Prospects for Syria’s decade old conflict remain dim

Marwan Kabalan

Marwan Kabalan

Marwan is professor of International Politics and head of the Diplomacy and International Relations Program at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies.

In late 2010, Syria appeared to be the least likely place in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region to experience any sort of unrest or popular uprising. The regime of Bashar al-Assad, one of the most repressive in the Arab world, seemed to be stable and in full control. It survived the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, the fall out from the assassination of former Lebanese prime minter, Rafiq al-Hariri, and emerged stronger politically from the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah. The March 2011 uprising came, therefore, as a surprise. Poor management of the crisis by local and regional actors led to one of the worst civil wars in recent history. With possibilities of finding a solution to the conflict dimming, Syria is sliding quickly towards becoming a failed state.
In March 2021, the Syrian crisis will complete a decade with no end in sight. All parties to the conflict appear to be stuck in a vicious cycle, as they continue to compound poor decisions made in the early days of the crisis. At the beginning of the Arab Spring, the Syrian regime thought that it was immune to revolution. Merely six weeks before the crisis, President Bashar Al Assad explained in an interview with the Wall Street Journal why his country was very unlikely to go through the turmoil that hit Tunisia and Egypt. Unlike those countries, he explained, his foreign policy was “very closely linked to the beliefs of the people. This is the core issue. When there is divergence between your policy and the people’s beliefs and interests, you will have this vacuum that creates disturbance. So people do not only live on interests; they also live on beliefs, especially in very ideological areas”. The failure to spot signs of a brewing storm led Assad to make some very big miscalculations, with grave consequences. Moreover, the use of deadly force to suppress the uprising turned peaceful demonstrators into armed militias, preparing the ground for a full-fledged civil war. The opposition, on the other hand, thought that a Libyan-like scenario could be repeated in Syria; and hopes for foreign intervention to help overthrow the regime persisted. Yet, when foreign intervention did occur, it came in favour of the regime. Eventually, the conflict drew in fighters from all corners of the world and dozens of countries became involved, turning it into a region-wide sectarian showdown.

Beginning of the armed insurgency

The early insurgency phase of the Syrian civil war is often marked by the formation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in July 2011 by a group of defected army officers. Angered by the government crackdown against largely peaceful protesters, these officers mounted a rebellion against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. An Arab League mission was sent in December 2011 to monitor, report on the situation, and bring about a peaceful solution to the crisis. The mission was abruptly ended shortly afterwards as fighting continued across the country.

In April 2012, former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, was designated as the UN-Arab League joint Special Representative for Syria. He was entrusted with the task of finding a solution to the conflict. A six-point peace plan was agreed upon by the United Nations Security Council but never implemented. On June 30 2012, the Geneva communiqué was issued after a meeting of the UN-backed Action Group for Syria. It included a roadmap to solve the conflict. Nevertheless, fighting continued to escalate.

The use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict was first reported on March 19 2013 in the town of Khan Al Assal, northeast of Aleppo. The government and opposition blamed each other for the attack. A much larger-scale chemical attack occurred in the suburbs of Damascus on August 21 2013. The Ghouta chemical attack was deemed the deadliest use of chemical weapons since the Iran-Iraq war, with estimated casualties of more than 800. In the aftermath, the Syrian regime agreed to surrender its arsenal of chemical weapons, in compliance with a US-Russian agreement, to avoid a military strike by the US.

Rise of ISIL and US intervention

The Syrian opposition started to show signs of radicalisation in early 2012, with the formation of the al-Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda affiliated group. A surge in sectarian politics in Syria and Iraq led to the rise of a more radical group: the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). ISIL presented itself as the champion of Sunni Islam against the rise of Shia power and Iran’s expansionist policies. To counteract ISIL and what it perceived as Sunni rebellions in Syria and in Iraq, Iran established Shia militias in these countries. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states supported Sunni groups, and a war by proxy ensued, with Syria serving as the main battleground.

Under President Barack Obama, the US tried to keep its intervention in the Syrian conflict at a minimum level. In June 2014, however, ISIL launched a major attack from its bases in east and northeast Syria, and sent shockwaves across the region when it defeated the US-trained Iraqi army and captured Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. On June 30 2014, from the al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul, ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the Islamic Caliphate. The fall of Mosul, the defeat of the Iraqi army and the seizure of US-made equipment – including 2300 Humvee armoured vehicles – was a major blow to the Obama administration. Faced with the resounding defeat of the Iraqi army, Obama reluctantly dispatched U.S. troops back to Iraq to fight ISIL. A US-led international coalition to destroy ISIL was formed in September 2014. In Syria the Pentagon approved a three-year program to train and equip a 15,000-strong force from among the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition to fight ISIL. The program was suspended in 2015 after it led to little to no results. To the chagrin of Turkey, the US then turned to Syrian Kurds to help eliminate ISIL. It established, trained and armed the Syria Democratic Forces (SDF), the backbone of which is the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).

Russian intervention

By June 2015, Moscow had grown extremely concerned about the ability of the Syrian regime to survive in the medium term. An increasingly gloomy prospect dominated, following a series of military setbacks for the Syrian army and its allies, especially in the northwest of the country. Opposition forces, backed by Turkey, came very close to the heartland of the Assad regime. The July 2015 U.S.-Turkish agreement to establish an ISIL-free zone in the northwest of Syria must have also troubled Moscow. Moscow feared that president Obama, having clinched a nuclear deal with Iran, might grant Turkey a free hand in the Syrian conflict without having to worry about Iran’s response. The Iran nuclear deal in itself may also have contributed to Moscow’s decision to intervene in Syria. Moscow must have feared a possible US-Iran understanding on Syria that would not necessarily respect its own interests. Having all that in mind, Russia decided to take the initiative, go on the offensive and lead a direct military intervention in the Syrian conflict. Putting Russia at the heart of the Syrian crisis, this intervention changed the dynamics of the Syria war. Russia’s superior air power helped turn the tide in favour of the regime.

Since the beginning of the conflict and for a variety of reasons, Russia did almost everything it could – short of military action – to protect the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and provided political and diplomatic cover to shield it from political and legal condemnation at the UN Security Council. Russia picked a convenient regional and international moment to act. The failure of the Obama administration to contain ISIL a year into the US-led international coalition aerial campaign provided Moscow the political ground to intervene. Moscow claimed that it went to fight in Syria to prevent a war with the Jihadists at home.

Russia also took advantage of the refugee crisis in Europe, with hundreds of thousands – most of them Syrians – arriving on the northern shores of the Mediterranean. The surge in the number of refugees seeking safe haven in Europe helped create a new European stance towards the Syrian crisis, with Germany, Austria, Spain, the UK, and Hungary calling for cooperation with Russia to find a quick fix to the Syrian conflict.

The Astana Process

For many years now Russia, Iran and Turkey have been bitter rivals in the Syrian civil war, supporting different sides in the conflict. Russia and Iran have backed the Syrian regime, providing military, financial and political support. Turkey has supported the Syrian opposition and provided a safe haven for its political and military leadership. The relationship between Turkey and Russia in particular reached its lowest ebb in November 2015, when Turkey shot down a Russia fighter jet near the borders with Syria. Relations improved afterwards, however, when both Iran and Russia condemned the July 2016 failed military coup in Turkey, expressing sympathy for president Erdogan. Rapprochement with Russia enabled Turkey to launch its first large-scale military operation inside Syria, Euphrates Shield, in August 2016. As a result of this operation, Turkish troops and Turkish-backed Syrian opposition factions recovered more than 2,000 square kilometres from ISIL and the Kurdish YPG fighters on the western bank of the River Euphrates. The December 2016 battle of Aleppo allowed Russia and Turkey to identify common interests in Syria. This led to the launching of the Astana process, which Iran joined later.

Astana allowed for the establishment of so-called de-escalation zones between the Syrian regime and the opposition in four major areas of conflict: Idlib, Northern Homs, Eastern Ghotta, and the South. Russia effectively used the de-escalation mechanism in 2017 to freeze the conflict with the opposition so that it could commit more troops in the race with the US for control of ISIL-held territories in Syria’s vast and rich eastern provinces. In early 2018 Russia resumed its offensive against the Syrian opposition, expelling it from three of the four de-escalation zones. Despite major differences with Turkey over the fourth zone and Iran’s opposition, Russia spared Idlib.

The Astana process allowed Russia to achieve two key objectives in its Syria venture: defeat the opposition militarily and shift the focus of the political process from political transition to drafting a new constitution. In January 2018 and with the help of Turkey, Russia hosted the Syrian Congress of National Dialogue in Sochi. The Congress brought together representatives from the Syrian regime and parts of the Turkish-based opposition. Its main objective was to set the stage for the launching of the constitutional committee. Former UN special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, also attended the meeting, at which he worked out an agreement with the Russians to form a committee to re-write the Syrian constitution as the basis for ending the conflict. The committee would have 150 members: 50 proposed by the Syrian regime, 50 by the opposition and 50 by the UN, including civil society representatives and technical experts. This last third became a point of contention between the Astana partners, as each tried to influence the selection of the names on this list, which would tip the balance between the regime and opposition when writing the constitution. After almost two years of negotiations and consultations, the committee was established in September 2019. It held its first meeting in Geneva on October 30 2019. Since then the committee has held several more meetings, the latest in August 2020, but so far little progress has been made.

Raqqa in 2017
Much of Raqqa suffered extensive damage during the battle of Raqqa in June–October 2017. Photo @ Mahmoud Bali (VOA), Wikimedia Commons.

US withdrawal

In February 2019, president Trump declared that ISIL was 100% defeated in Syria and that the US was ready to leave Syrian territories east of the Euphrates River. To avoid creating a vacuum and to silence critics who charged that the US was repeating the mistake of Iraq, where a premature departure in 2011 allowed al-Qaeda to thrive and eventually become ISIL, Trump accepted an offer made during a phone call on October 6 2019, with Turkish president Erdogan to take over the ISIL battle in Syria. The agreement with Turkey triggered pushback in the US. The president was criticised by Republicans and Democrats for “selling out” his Kurdish allies (the YPG), who had fought and died alongside US forces in the war against ISIL.

Turkey’s paramount concern in Syria has always been the Kurdish question. Its ultimate objective is to eliminate the threat posed by the YPG, which Ankara considers to be the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and hence a terrorist group. Therefore, when Trump decided to withdraw, Turkey seized the opportunity and launched its third military operation inside Syria to eliminate the threat posed by the YPG.

To contain this problem, Trump sent his vice president to Ankara to negotiate an end to the Turkish operation. On October 17 2019, the US and Turkey reached an understanding in which Turkey agreed “to pause its offensive for 120 hours to allow the United States to facilitate the withdrawal of the YPG forces from the Turkish-controlled safe zone”. It was striking that ISIL leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, was located and killed in northwest Syria near the Turkish border only ten days after the conclusion of the US-Turkey agreement. It also came a week after the October 22 Erdogan-Putin summit in Sochi, where the two leaders agreed to push back Kurdish fighters from a “safe zone” along the Turkey-Syria borders. Turkey and Russia may have played key roles in locating Baghdadi and in sharing intelligence with the US in order to help president Trump justify his decision to withdraw from Syria. Although for completely different reasons, both countries have a vested interest in the US leaving Syria. Under pressure, however, Trump agreed to keep a few hundred US soldiers east of the Euphrates to control Syria’s oil and gas fields and prevent Iran from establishing a land corridor between Iraq and Lebanon through Syrian territories.

Future Prospect

Having regained almost 70 percent of Syrian territories, the regime of Bashar Al Assad is likely to remain in power in the foreseeable future. He will seek to reclaim and solidify power in all major urban centres of the country. However, Damascus is likely to face increasing economic difficulties, as the US continues to maximise the pressure through the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act. The US sanctions aim to prevent the regime from declaring victory and to force it to accept a negotiated solution to the crisis. Many, nevertheless, fear that ordinary Syrians will suffer most from the US sanctions, with Iraq’s notorious food-for-oil program still very much alive in people’s memory.

The 800-strong US force in the northeast of Syria will also remain in the short term, despite Donald Trump’s desire to pull them out completely. Currently this force controls key hydrocarbon assets in the eastern part of the country and hampers the ability of the Syrian regime to regain control over the economically important oil fields.

Emboldened by US support, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) will further consolidate their position in the Eastern part of the country and slowly begin to establish their own autonomous institutions. This could lead to a backlash from the area’s Arab majority, since Iran, Russia and Turkey are all trying to woo the Arab tribes in the region to help expel the US forces and suppress independence aspirations by the Kurds. Turkey will retain control of the 30km deep “safe-zone” it claims as a buffer against the SDF. Russia will continue to patrol the safe zone, and in so doing aid in further entrenching the Syrian regime’s presence in the northeast of the country.

With the complete loss of its territories, the threat of ISIL has been reduced but is not completely eliminated. After the partial withdrawal of the US forces from the east of Syria in October 2019, ISIL sleeper cell attacks increased. The Pentagon might use this as a pretext to justify its presence in the eastern provinces of the country.

The Syrian regime will attempt to create an economically viable zone in the parts of the country it controls, predominantly in the west. The government will face a huge challenge, however, in trying to control the deteriorating economic situation. There is little clarity on how the government plans to deal with rampant inflation, US sanctions, and fuel shortages, especially given the poor economic conditions of its two main allies: Russia and Iran. With the lack of outside aid, the regime might end up ruling a failed state.

Given the intransigence of the regime’s delegation during the meetings of the constitutional committee, and the voting rules within the committee, a political solution remains only a distant possibility. However, even if the remote eventuality of an agreement materialises, it is hard to see how fair and transparent elections can be held as long as the regime keeps control of the army and the security forces. Breaking this deadlock will require co-operation between the five big powers in the Syrian conflict – the US, Russia, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia – in order to move forward. Conditions for this cooperation are as yet non-existent.

New dynamics have emerged in recent months, however, that are likely to further complicate the situation, politically and on the ground. With Iran weakened by US sanctions, animosity between the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia on one hand and Turkey on the other has come to the fore. As part of their campaign against political Islamic groups, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh may unexpectedly opt to embrace the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The US is trying to curb its allies from taking that path, but things could change if al-Assad shows readiness to join the US-led effort to normalize Arab relations with Israel. Russia too is pushing towards reaching a peace agreement between al-Assad and Israel, as part of its efforts to rehabilitate the regime and restore international legitimacy to Syria’s controversial president. Turkey-Russia agreements on Syria, on the other hand, are coming under significant pressure as the interests of the two countries clash elsewhere, such as in Libya and the Caucasus. Moscow might decide to go ahead with presidential elections in Syria regardless of the constitutional process. In October 2020, a Russian envoy visited Lebanon and Jordan, seeking to win cooperation with the repatriation of Syrian refugees, an important step towards organizing UN-sponsored elections. All of this is taking place during winter and while COVID-19 continues to ravage the country.

No matter what the dynamics of the Syria conflict might be in the coming weeks and months, prospects for war-stricken Syria could not be bleaker.


Marwan Kabalan


If you want to know more on the topic, check out our podcast with Iyad Yousef entitled “The past, present and future of Syria”.

Received: 11.10.20, Ready: 15.11.20; Editors: Robert Albro, Alexander F. Brown.

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