Syria war enters 10th year with international showdown causing huge toll

Syria's war has displaced more than 11 million people at home and abroad.
Sunday 15/03/2020
Displaced Syrian women walk at a camp in Kafr Lusin village on the border with Turkey in Syria's northwestern province of Idlib, on March 10 (AFP)
Displaced Syrian women walk at a camp in Kafr Lusin village on the border with Turkey in Syria's northwestern province of Idlib, on March 10 (AFP)

BEIRUT--As it enters its 10th year, the war in Syria is anything but abating as foreign powers scrap over a ravaged country where human suffering keeps reaching new levels.

When protesters in March 2011 demanded their rights and regime change, they likely never imagined it would trigger a reaction that has led to the 21st century's biggest war.

Nine years on, Syrian President Bashar Assad remains in power, more than 380,000 people have died, dozens of towns and cities have been razed and half of the country's population displaced.

Nearly a year after the Islamic State (ISIS) "caliphate" was dismantled, the West's attention towards Syria was only pricked again in February when Turkey threatened to open the floodgates for migrants seeking to flee to Europe.

While the number of fronts has been reduced by Damascus's reconquest in recent years, the nature of the war is changing and violence raged in north-western Syria. Other regions have long been pacified but people there have yet to feel the dividends of peace as Syria plays host to a complex international showdown involving Russia, the United States, Turkey, Israel and Iran.

"It's certainly not a simple international conflict," said Syria researcher Fabrice Balanche.

Nine years ago, protesters inspired by "Arab spring" uprisings demonstrated in the southern region of Daraa and other Syrian cities. Armed opposition started to wrest key areas from government control. Al-Qaeda and ISIS-affiliated jihadist groups also emerged and swept across large parts of the country.

As the situation unravelled, foreign armies entered the arena, eventually leading Damascus, with the support of Russia and Iran, to regain the upper hand. It now controls 70% of the country.

Alarmed by ISIS, Washington intervened in 2014 with air strikes on Syrian soil as the head of a global coalition against the jihadists. A year later, Moscow waded in on Assad's side, a move that would turn the tide of Syria's war.

Iran, with its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and allied Iraqi and Lebanese militias, took an active role in backing the regime in what analysts said was a ploy to secure access to the Mediterranean.

Turkey launched the first of several incursions across its southern border in 2016 and last year seized a 120km long strip of land from Kurdish fighters.

Israel has carried out hundreds of strikes in Syria, which it said mostly target Iranian and Lebanese fighters.

In the latest fighting, a Russia-backed offensive since December on the last major rebel bastion of Idlib forced almost a million people to flee towards the closed Turkish border within months. A Russian-Turkish ceasefire holds for now in Idlib, though it is not clear for how long it will stem resisting jihadists and other Turkey-backed rebels.

The deal was met with scepticism by residents who have seen countless initiatives founder in recent years but Balanche said he expected the fighting to die down in the coming years.

After the north-east returns to the government, "the country will be a Russian-Iranian protectorate while Turks occupy the north," Balanche said.

Idlib would likely become a Syrian version of the Gaza Strip, he said, with millions crammed into a narrow sliver of land on the border.

"Assad will stay in power and be re-elected in 2021," he said.

In regime-held areas, the government has been accused of widespread detentions and forced army conscriptions.

Omar al-Hariri, an exiled activist, said: "If we asked people today if they'd rather revert to the way things were before 2011, they might say yes but what's done is done. There's no going back."