As the Syrian conflict enters its eighth year, various commentators, and indeed governments and leaders, are trying to write it off as nearly over. Some are focused narrowly on the territorial defeat of the so-called Islamic State (IS); others have made the simplistic judgement that Bashar al-Assad’s regime is closing in on victory. Both sides are wrong.
The world’s attention has turned away from the hundreds of thousands dead and the millions bombed, displaced and starved under siege. Meanwhile, there is no longer one Syria, just a fragmented country locked in a seemingly intractable state of violence.
With IS greatly diminished, control of Syria is effectively divided between three sides: the Damascus government and its backers, opposition/rebel factions, and Kurdish forces. Here’s my review of where they stand, and what might happen to them in 2018.
The Assad regime seemed doomed to defeat in summer 2015, but thanks to the intervention of Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and other foreign militias, it now exercises at least nominal control over most of Syria’s cities and much of the remaining population.
Russian air power headed off a rebel takeover of Damascus, secured the westward route from the capital to the Mediterranean, and helped recapture all of Syria’s largest city, Aleppo. Pro-Assad forces have now regained territory in southern and central Syria, most of the Damsacus suburbs, and the opposition stronghold of Homs. Russian, Iranian, Hezbollah and regime-backed troops and militias cleared IS from the ancient city of Palymyra, pushed them away from Aleppo, and then pressed on right up to the Iraqi border.
Not there yet: Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin. EPA/Michael Klimentyev
Yet Assad still does not control large swaths of the country. There are rebel strongholds from the Jordanian border to the holdout East Ghouta area near Damascus to almost all of Idlib province in the north-west, while Kurdish-held territory in the north and east includes most of Syria’s oil and gas fields.
In the areas that it does control, even Aleppo, the regime’s grip is not entirely secure. Assad’s depleted armed forces rely heavily on Iran and Russia. With much of Syria badly damaged and 75% of its GDP gone, Assad needs billions in reconstruction assistance. And while far from isolated in the Arab world and shielded by Russia at the UN Security Council, the regime still hasn’t restored secure diplomatic relations with most of the world.
The prospect of the opposition displacing the Assad regime, or even securing representation in a national government, is long gone. Russia and Iran quashed that ambition, aided by the US’s relegation to the sidelines and by opposition backers, including Turkey, who preferred to cooperate with Moscow.
The opposition’s goal is to keep hold of the areas it still governs, including Idlib province and northern Aleppo province. Rebel groups in East Ghouta are still resisting the Assad regime’s bombardment and siege. Elsewhere, the Southern Front rebel group has been abandoned by the US-led operations centre, but still holds parts of Dara'a province, including a share of Dara'a city, where the uprising began in March 2011.
The aftermath of an airstrike in Idlib province. EPA
Beyond the threat of pro-Assad offensives and sieges, the opposition is also tackling the rise of hardline Islamist bloc Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). HTS was created in January 2017 and includes the faction Jabhat al-Nusra, involved in the Syria conflict since 2012 and formerly linked to al-Qaeda. Throughout 2017, HTS seized the military initiative from other factions, notably Ahrar al-Sham, in Idlib province. It is now trying to run civil affairs through a Syria Salvation Government, challenging local councils under the opposition’s Syrian Interim Government.
The conflict has given Syria’s Kurdish groups, notably the Kurdistan Democratic Unionist Party (PYD), the opportunity to pursue power, particularly in their Kobani and Cezire cantons in northeast Syria along the Turkish and Iraqi borders.