In March 2011 a few teenagers in a southern Syrian city – fired up no doubt by the revolutionary fervour sweeping the Middle East at the time – daubed some inflammatory slogans on a school wall. Unfortunately for them, the Syria that President Bashar al-Assad had inherited in 2000 from his autocratic father was a tightly controlled police state, in which a powerful and all-encompassing security machine ensured that the slightest hint of opposition to the régime was ruthlessly crushed.
The youngsters were hunted down, arrested and tortured. When details of their ordeal became known, protesters took to the streets. The security forces, unable to break up the demonstration, eventually fired into the crowd. That was enough to spark widespread rebellion. Groups antagonistic to Assad’s government began nationwide protests. Gradually, popular dissent developed into an armed revolt. The opposition, consisting of a variety of groups, but primarily the Free Syrian Army, were finally seeking to overthrow the despotic Assad régime and substitute a democratic form of government.
Had assistance of any sort been forthcoming from the US or other Western governments at that early stage, Assad could have been defeated, to be replaced by a democratically elected government. But President Obama hesitated, and then continued vacillating even after it was clear in August 2013 that Assad had used chemical weapons against his opponents, utterly indifferent to the extensive civilian casualties that ensued.
Why did Obama shrink from action? Because he had set his sights on a nuclear accommodation with Iran, which always regarded Syria as essential to its Shi’ite empire. Rather than put his projected nuclear agreement in jeopardy, Obama reneged on his declared intention to punish Assad if he deployed chemical weapons. Instead he seized on a deal brokered by Russia, under which Assad would nominally surrender the whole of the chemical arsenal that he had originally denied possessing.
However the Assad régime did no such thing, concluded US intelligence agencies in July 2015. On the contrary it concealed certain deadly chemical stocks and, adding insult to injury, actually continued developing a new type of chemical munition using chlorine.
Now, more than four years after it began, the full-blown civil war that developed in Syria has killed over 230,000 people, half of them civilians. In addition, the UN estimates, nearly 8 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes. When the additional 4 million Syrians who have fled into neighbouring countries are taken into account, it follows that a humanitarian disaster has overtaken more than half of the country’s pre-war population of 23 million.
This is the outcome to date of the complex series of battles that have developed within Syria over the past five years. An overview of the devastated battlefield that Syria has become reveals no less than six separate conflicts in progress.
There is first the initial domestic battle between the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition seeking a democratic alternative. Both sides are supported by outside forces – Assad by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah; the Syrian opposition by Sunni Arab groupings. The second major battle is between the forces of Assad and those of Islamic State (IS), which is set on extending its territorial gains to encompass the whole of Syria and Iraq.
Thirdly there is the struggle between IS and the US-led coalition that, fighting under the less-than-inspiring slogan of “no boots on the ground”, confines itself to training local forces and supporting their operations with air-strikes. Fourthly, Turkey has renewed its attacks on the Kurdish PKK. As soon as Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, decided to join the fight against IS, he mounted air strikes equally against the Kurds, whose campaign for autonomy is a long-standing source of friction within Turkey.
The fifth conflict on Syrian soil is that of the Kurdish Peshmerga troops against IS – a notably more successful effort than most of the other anti-IS activity over the past few years. Finally, IS finds itself battling intermittently against a number of jihadist Sunni groups that reject the claims of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to be caliph of all Muslims, and his organization to be the basis of an eventual world-wide caliphate.
This maelstrom that is Syria has thrown up three recent attempts to settle the future. One, sponsored by Saudi Arabia, calls for the removal of Assad and his régime, and supports the Sunni Arab rebellion against it. Another, sponsored by Saudi’s rival, Iran, is a four-point plan calling for an immediate ceasefire, a national unity government, the safeguarding of minority rights, and internationally supervised presidential elections – apparently reasonable proposals which did not fool the London-based Arab newspaper, Al Hayat. In an article on August 16, it reveals what it dubs “Tehran’s hidden motives”.
In 2012, the UN and the Arab League adopted a six-point peace plan for Syria, subsequently ratified in the 2014 Geneva II Conference. Integral to it was a call for Assad’s resignation. Inevitably Iran and Russia opposed the proposals, and this new Iranian initiative, Al Hayat asserts, is an attempt to by-pass the Geneva plan.
“By promoting a plan of its own, supported by Russia,” says Al Hayat, “Tehran is … trying to use a cease-fire in order to give an official status to the militias it has built in Syria…The leaders in Tehran talk about a diplomatic solution in Syria, while deploying more and more Revolutionary Guard militias, supported by Hezbollah, to fight alongside Assad. It uses noble rhetoric to deceive the international community.”
The third current peace initiative, conceived by Staffan de Mistura, a UN special envoy, was endorsed by the UN Security Council in mid-August. Although the plan is based on the Geneva II proposals, it calls for a transitional government “on the basis of mutual consent “, implying that Assad and his regime would be party to the arrangement. This plan does envisage the eventual removal of Assad, but at some unspecified time in the future. It has been positively welcomed by Iran, and is backed Russia – possibly one reason for recent media rumours that Russia and Iran are considering abandoning their unquestioning support for Assad.
So what might Syria’s future be? A country wholly over-run by IS, and under its control? A country from which IS has been expelled, the government returned to Bashar el-Assad, and therefore once again firmly within the Iranian sphere of influence? A country split into its component parts, one of which might be an autonomous Kurdish area, possibly linked to Kurdistan in Iraq? A country with a new constitution and a democratically elected government? The possibilities are many and various.
It is, as they say, in the lap of the gods.