WHEN the entrenched leaders in Libya, Egypt and Yemen fell victim to revolution, many thought Bashar al-Assad would be next to be consumed by the Arab Spring.
Instead, a decade on from the first inklings of revolt in Syria, Assad has, against all odds, remained both alive and in charge of his divided nation.
While most ‘revolutions’ in Arab states either yielded the fall of a dictator or a military coup, the ten-year-long Syrian Civil War has instead resulted in a country split into four parts.
Gabriel Huland, a researcher on the Syrian conflict, told Redaction Politics: “Syria is still a divided country.
“The Syrian regime controls most of the country, but there are still large parts of the territory in the hands of other groups and regional powers.
“In a way, foreign states have taken the country: Turkey controls part of Northern Syria, and Iranian-backed militias are central to keeping the Assad regime standing.
“Russia and the United States also have troops or military personal on the ground. Kurdish militias are operative in Northern Syria.
“In short, Syria is far from being a unified territory, although the Assad regime controls most of it. The current “equilibrium” is based on a series of alliances and agreements involving different external powers.”
With so many powers involved in the conflict – albeit mostly in two loose coalitions – the Syrian opposition has become fractured, with some rebel groups taken over by Islamist factions.
“Different opposition groups control the Northwestern province of Idlib,” Mr Huland said.
“The most important of them is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which was formerly linked to al-Qaida, but still has an Islamist ideology.”
A litany of splinter groups has diluted the initial aims of Syrian demonstrators back in 2011, and instead invited foreign powers to wage a proxy war.
American and Turkish-backed rebels have been unable to hold onto early gains, while the Syrian Army has managed to take back much of the territory stolen by Islamist groups.
There have been several periods when Bashar’s government has been under heavy pressure; from Washington and Westminster after the chemical weapons attacks, as well as the initial shock of ISIS’ spread – but he has been bailed out each time, allowing him to avoid a fate like that of Muammar Gaddafi.
“I think this can be mainly attributed to geopolitical factors,” Mr Huland explained.
“The Assad regime was on the verge of collapsing on two occasions, in 2013 and 2015.
“On both occasions, it was “rescued” by external powers; Hezbollah (which is linked to the Iranian regime) in 2013 and Russia in 2015.
“Other factors come into play, such as the lack of military unit among oppositional groups and the fact that part of the opposition to the Syrian regime became dominated by Islamist ideologies.
“However, I still think that the support that the Syrian regime received from external backers was determinant. We haven’t seen it in the cases of Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, or Sudan, to use a more recent example of a country in which a government fell.”
There was a lack of coherent strategy by the coalition of Western nations, Mr Huland said, who were more doveish on Assad than they have been in the past.
“Western powers did back some opposition groups, but I don’t think they ever really had a strategy of regime change in Syria, primarily because of the geopolitical aspects mentioned earlier.
“Their main strategy was to force the Assad regime to the negotiating table. On different occasions, such as in the aftermath of the 2018 joint airstrikes by the US-France-UK, Western leaders emphasized that they did not aim at regime change.
“When the protests escalated in 2011, and the Syrian regime escalated its use of violence, President Obama demanded that Assad stepped down, but that was never followed by more energetic measures to force him to step down.
“I don’t think the West wants him to step down at the moment. I think they are even willing to let Russia play a more prominent role in Syria’s future. Turkey has a different strategy.
“They will only leave the country once they are sure that Kurdish forces don’t represent a threat for them and once they see a perspective of stabilization. Turkey would not mind that Russia plays a more significant role in the country.
“But as for Western countries, they have too many problems now to worry about Assad. As long as ISIS is contained and some of the oilfields in Northern Syria are secure, they won’t mind the Assad regime at all.”
The fall of Assad and a subsequently anarchic ‘endgame’ has allegedly been on the cards for years. But as more players enter the conflict that has cost more than half a million lives on all sides, Syria may remain in an imperfect balance for years to come.
“I don’t see an ‘endgame’ in sight,” Mr Huland told Redaction Politics.
“The country is still divided; there are no reconstruction plans – no one is willing to invest in this reconstruction process.”
The physical and physiological scars of ten years and counting of war also run deep. If a resolution were found tomorrow the structural damage alone is unlikely to heal for generations, assuming enough Syrians wished to be the people to begin that task.
“Most refugees are insecure about coming back. Iran still plays a significant role; some say Iran is implementing a strategy of expanding Shiism in Syria. Turkey controls part of the country”, said Mr Huland.
“As I noted earlier, Idlib is still unstable, and the current arrangement depends extensively on different regional powers. Parliamentary elections are scheduled to occur in May, but there are no signs that they will be free and fair; I don’t see them as playing any role in (re) legitimizing Assad before the population.”
Gabriel Huland is a journalist and a PhD candidate at SOAS, University of London. His research looks at the coverage of the Syrian conflict in three American newspapers – the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal.
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