The war in Syria has been drawing to a slow, violent end for almost two years now. Since Russia started to increase its military support for the Assad regime in September 2015, there has almost been an inevitability that the government forces would hold out and eventually reclaim most of the country. This was accentuated by the deafening silence from most Western nations as rebel held Eastern Aleppo was levelled by the Russian air force. To the ‘moderate’ rebels groups, that had previously been backed by the US, it was a clear signal that they would have to win this war on their own.
That was never going to happen. Syrian forces have continued to retake large swathes of the country. There have been setbacks along the way, the Islamic State retook Palmyra in December 2016 nine months after it had been re-taken by the Syrian army. These setbacks did not fundamentally impact the direction of the war however, fading resistance in the face of a massive Russian/Iranian backed onslaught. The breaking of Islamic State’s siege of Deir Ez-Zor last week is the latest victory in the Syrian War endgame.
Syria was one battleground of a wider struggle for supremacy in the Middle East between Saudi Arabia and Iran. While this was not the immediate cause of the war, it evolved into this as more parties became involved. What became clearer as the war ensued was that Iran, and its allies Hezbollah and the Iraqi government, were willing to commit more military support than the rebel’s backers in Turkey and the Gulf.
If we assume that this trend won’t be reversed, where does Syria and the Assad regime go from here? Large parts of the country are in ruins. According to Human Rights Watch, by February 2016 470,000 people had been killed, 6.1 million displaced internally and 4.8 million Syrian refugees abroad. This is devastation on an almost unprecedented scale in modern times.
Atrocities have been committed by all sides. This is not a defence of Bashir al-Assad and the Syrian government. According to the United Nations, the government have committed multiple war crimes. The question I want to raise is what options are open to the government now. Can Syria come back into the fold and reclaim legitimacy in the West or is destined to be a devastated, war-torn pariah state for the next decade?
Syria doesn’t have the benefit of major oil reserves. It will struggle to attract the financial support necessary to rebuild most of the infrastructure that has been destroyed. The fact that there hasn’t been a regime change, immediately makes this a different case to the other devastated nation we’e seen in the last two decades like Afghanistan, Iraq and to a lesser extent, Libya.
The Western world is still some time away from re-recognizing the legitimacy of the Assad government. Syria’s key allies are not in a position to offer the financial support required, particularly as they are involved in their own domestic and international struggles. Russia is a longtime ally of Syria and their use of the Mediterranean port of Tartous was a major incentive for their increased military involvement mentioned above. However the sanctions imposed on Russia have taken their toll.
There is the potential for China to lead the rebuilding of the country. Throughout the war China has been quite muted in its criticism of the Syrian regime. It has almost vetoed as many UN resolutions against Syria as Russia has. In recent times China has made many new allies across the developing world, particularly in Africa, by funding huge infrastructure projects without making political demands from the reciprocants.
The Syrian government could also try and endear itself to the more right wing political parties in Europe by offering to take back Syrian refugees in exchange for funding. While the feasibility of this may be negligible it could be a smart PR move. In fact, there has been a noticeable decline in criticism in Europe of the regime as the number of Islamic State inspired attacks have increased across the continent. Each atrocity has helped the regime drive the narrative that ‘we are fighting the same terrorists together’.
Ultimately it has been a terrible seven years for the Syrian people. There can be no excuse for the atrocities committed by the Syrian government. If we assume that their victory in the Syrian War is now a fait accompli , the future direction of Syria could be an interesting measure of how far the US has retreated in its supremacy of the Middle East as it tries to continue its Pacific pivot. If this is the case the question is who will fill this vacuum? Will Syria be able to leverage this strategic battle or continue to be an unfortunate pawn in this modern version of the Great Game?