A Decade Since the Uprising, Syria is Marked by Instability and Conflict

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region

March 19, 2021

Ten years after the revolution, the situation in Syria remains precarious. Despite the government’s consolidation of control over formerly held rebel areas, there are few signs, if any, that the human suffering, economic crisis, and security in the country will come to an end anytime soon. Recent developments continue to highlight the ongoing involvement of the United States, Russia, Iran, Israel, and Turkey, as well as a number of armed non-state actors that have turned Syria into a proxy battleground for influence in the region.

Writing for Asharq Alawsat on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the Syrian revolution, Hazem Saghieh is keen to reclaim what he believes has been lost about the uprising’s true purpose and objective: “The revolution started as a radical project that put many issues on the table, even the country’s flag, which the revolutionaries saw as an assault on their patriotism. The country’s name was put forward, as it seemed to many that the word ‘Arab’ was biting into the word ‘Syrian’ and imposed, on a significant group of the population, the Kurds, an ethnic identity different from their own. Of course, the Syrians revolted against many things: a repressive apparatus that enslaved them at home and actively contributed to the region’s destruction, a shallow economy that produces nothing but inequality, poverty and unemployment, and an education that does not produce credible knowledge…. In this sense, and in many others, the revolution seemed to be an attempt to radically rectify an extremely radical mistake.”

The toll that the violence of the last ten years has had on the civilian population is clear by now, with millions fleeing Syria to find refuge in neighboring countries. Ayaki Ito, the UNHCR’s representative in Lebanon, penned an op-ed this week for the country’s main newspaper, The Daily Star, where he paints a damning picture of the suffering experienced by the Syrian population: “Today, over 80 million people are forcibly displaced worldwide. One in six is Syrian. These shocking figures are a shameful reminder of the failure of the world to end one of its biggest humanitarian crises…. Ten years on, life for refugee children, women and men has gotten more and more difficult. Refugees’ abilities to survive have been stretched past the breaking point. With limited possibilities to generate an income to cover one’s basic needs and enable the children to stay in school, refugees are depleting not only their material resources, but also their human capital.”

And it seems unlikely, judging by this recent AP report published by Arab News of Israeli airstrikes on Damascus, that the violence in Syria will end any time soon: “Israel launched a missile attack on suburbs of the Syrian capital Damascus late Tuesday, and Syrian air defenses responded to the strikes, state television reported. State TV said Syrian air defense shot down some of the Israeli missiles before they hit their targets. It gave no further details or said which suburbs came under attack. They were the first attacks since Feb. 28, when Israeli missiles struck southern suburbs of Damascus. Israel has launched hundreds of strikes against Iran-linked military targets in Syria over the years but rarely acknowledges or discusses such operations. Israel views Iranian entrenchment on its northern frontier as a red line, and it has repeatedly struck Iran-linked facilities and weapons convoys destined for Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah group.”

Disregarding other considerations, the Israelis, for their part, feel confident they are doing enough not to turn Russia against them, even as their campaign against Iranian and Hezbollah military targets in Syria continues to accelerate. This confidence, argue Daniel Siryoti and Shahar Klaiman in an op-ed for Israel Hayom, comes from the understanding by the Russians that Israel’s real target is not Syria: “According to foreign reports, the chaos in Syria has allowed Israel to act against Iran’s efforts to smuggle game-changing weapons to Hezbollah…. In the meantime, Israel’s relations with Russia have facilitated understandings with the Assad regime…. Amid this backdrop, the question is begged whether the airstrikes attributed to Israel in Syria are harmful to these efforts. Kuperwasser, however, says the answer is no. ‘Everyone understands that Israel isn’t acting against the Syrian regime,’ he says. ‘It also isn’t doing anything that jeopardizes Russian interests.’”

Iranians, for their part, continue to argue against the US presence in Syria. The Iranian daily Tehran Times reported this week remarks made by the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations during a UN Security Council meeting where Mr. Majid Takht-Ravanchi “emphasized that the sole solution to the crisis in Syria would be a peaceful one conforming to international law, according to Press TV. The Iranian ambassador underlined that all foreign forces that are present in Syria without the Damascus government’s approval, particularly the American troops that are occupying parts of Syria, must leave the country as soon as possible…. Iran and Syria enjoy close relations. In Late February, Khatibzadeh traveled to Syria and held talks with Syrian officials and attended meetings of think tanks, media outlets and elites in the Arab country. The meetings were held in Damascus in line with Iran-Syria cooperation in public diplomacy, media and cultural arenas.”

Turkey has also been actively involved on both sides of its border with Syria, concerned in particular with the growing influence of Kurdish fighters and what it considers a threat to its national security. However, Turkey’s interference has not gone well in the West, or in Syria, for that matter, where Turkey is seen, as reflected in this article by Manar Salameh and Mazen Eyon for the Syrian News Agency, as a launching pad for foreign fighters into Syria: “According to the confessions of Western officials themselves, the regime of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has turned Turkey into a haven for the gathering of those terrorists and a corridor for their removal to Syria…. A lot of intelligence and media reports have exposed the role of Western countries and the Erdogan regime in that scheme, which targeted Syria, but later, the magic turned over the magician as those terrorists returned to their countries and caused terror and panic among Western governments and societies.”

Turkey has pushed back against such characterizations, arguing instead that, thanks to its involvement, millions of Syrian refugees are being looked after. Daily Sabah’s Burhanettin Duran is also quick to point out that Turkey’s only motivation for getting involved in Syria is due to the West’s support and “appeasement” of Kurdish fighters: “Today, Syria represents a litmus test for the Biden administration’s commitment to democracy and human rights…. If Washington continues to appease the YPG, the PKK terrorist organization’s Syrian branch, the current administration is bound to repeat Obama’s mistakes unless it makes a serious effort to provide humanitarian relief…. Up to 5 million Syrians live in Idlib and Turkish-enforced safe zones. Keeping in mind that 4 million refugees are still in Turkey, Ankara protects half of all Syrian nationals. That fact alone shows that the U.S. and the EU should support the reconstruction of safe zones. Turkey’s growing influence over Syria serves the West’s interests. They cannot protect their vested interests in Syria with the help of the YPG – an armed group bound to be destroyed.”

Unfortunately, as Christiane Waked notes in an op-ed for Khaleej Times, while various actors squabble over their real or perceived grievances, Syrians continue to suffer. Waked asserts that the only way out of the current impasse is “a political solution that will end all the killings and destruction so that people can return to their homes. The country also needs a permanent solution to revive its economy, that has been deeply affected by the conflict. Syria is facing its worst economic crisis since the beginning of the war in 2011, as the price of the pound against the dollar fell on the black market this month to its lowest levels ever, which led to a decrease in the value of salaries and an increase in the cost of imports.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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