Syria’s war enters seventh year with no end to the carnage

Sunday 12/03/2017
No sign of ending. A fighter of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) looks through binoculars in the village of Sabah al-Khayr on the northern outskirts of Deir ez-Zor, on February 21st. (AFP)

Beirut - The Syrian war lurches into its seventh ghastly year on March 15th with much of the country in ruins, its economy decimated and half its population dead, miss­ing or homeless. Syria is probably facing disintegration into sectarian and ethnic entities, vivid testimony to the unfolding transformation of much of the Middle East.
There is no sign that the fighting, a confusing melee of several separate conflicts, including regional con­frontations as well as internal Syrian rivalries, is anywhere near ending.
Even so, Yezid Sayigh, senior fel­low at the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Centre in Beirut, ob­served: “The Syrian conflict, which long seemed interminable, has en­tered its final phase. It is far from over… and a formal negotiated settlement remains a remote pros­pect…
“The only possible consolation is that a genuinely broad political opposition, grass-roots social activ­ism and new cross-sectarian and cross-ethnic coalitions cannot re­vive without an end to the armed conflict.
“How this may unfold is hard to predict or guarantee, but it is fast emerging the only hope for future change in Syria,” Sayigh wrote in a February 16th analysis.
The turning point in the war was Russia’s military intervention in September 2015 that saved the dy­nastic regime of President Bashar Assad from imminent defeat. That complicated an already bewilder­ingly complex conflict and thrust it into a new global dimension.
Russia’s military firepower, pri­marily its air and missile forces, and its diplomatic influence in the UN Security Council, heightened the flood of war refugees from the Middle East into a tidal wave of hu­man misery swamping Europe and threatening its unity, a destabilisa­tion that fed into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategic game plan.
A ceasefire brokered by Russia, Iran and Turkey has been in place since November 30th but it is so perforated as to be meaningless.
Russia, having rescued Assad and his cronies, clearly wants to find an accommodation with the major parties and pull out its troops.
Iran, Assad’s other key ally, is in Syria to stay to further its strate­gic expansion from the Gulf to the Mediterranean.
Neither can it easily pull out of Syria because Assad’s dynasty would surely go under simply be­cause his military forces have been dangerously depleted due to battle losses, large-scale defections and draft-dodging. The Assad regime cannot even control the territory it holds, let alone win back on its own the vast areas held by jihadists and other rebel forces.
Assad can only claim control of about 35% of Syria, mainly in the centre and the west. The energy-rich east and the agricultural heart­land in the north are held by his myriad enemies.
There are disturbing signs that the war is taking on new dimen­sions, drawing outside powers ever deeper into a conflict that seems to constantly change complexion and threaten wider turmoil.
Turkey, driven by the strategic ambitions of its increasingly auto­cratic president, Recep Tayyip Er­dogan, invaded northern Syria in August 2016, ostensibly to crush the Islamic State (ISIS) but largely to prevent Syrian Kurds establish­ing an independent state on Tur­key’s southern border while Ankara struggles with its own separatist Kurdish minority.
The global war against ISIS over­laps with Syria’s own bloodletting even as Turkey’s inroads threaten to ignite new sectarian conflicts in northern Syria where rival jihadist groups are battling for supremacy.
There are growing signs of dis­cord between the three outside powers that effectively control both the war and the quest for a peace settlement.
US President Donald Trump’s de­ployment in early March of 200 US Marines with artillery around the flashpoint town of Manbij in north­ern Syria indicated a more muscular US involvement in Syria that could enflame the multilayered conflict.
The key element in what comes next is whether Assad remains in power. The rebels want him and his autocratic regime gone. Russia and Iran want to keep him in place for their own strategic purposes, although Moscow apparently ac­cepts that in the end there can be no lasting political solution while he remains.
However, the political spectrum in Syria is so fragmented that agree­ment will be difficult, perhaps im­possible, to achieve despite Rus­sia’s drive for a political settlement and a UN-brokered peace initiative.
Assad’s regime, thanks to Russian and Iranian support and the oppo­sition’s crippling disarray, is secure and, thus emboldened, seems de­termined to militarily crush rebel forces.
The Russians, fearful of becom­ing snarled in another Afghanistan-style quagmire, are focused on find­ing a negotiated end to the conflict.
“In the long term, the Syrian gov­ernment has no intention of making significant concessions to the re­bels and intends to build on its cur­rent battlefield advantage as long as its foreign support, particularly Ira­nian, remains strong,” the US-based global security consultancy Stratfor warned in January.
“Given Russia’s determination to exit the conflict and Turkey’s in­creasingly accommodative stance towards Assad, some minor agree­ments are within reach but the Syr­ian conflict will not end in 2017.”