Syria is now well into its fourth year of civil war, and the resulting devastation is clear to all. The United Nations (UN) estimate that 250,000 people have died, 12.2 million are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance and over 4 million have sought refuge in other countries within the region and in Europe.
UN Secretary General has described the overall situation as the “the largest humanitarian emergency in the world today”
At the same time, Syria has become a safe haven for terrorist groups, with ISIL and the Al Nusra Front controlling nearly half of the country. The Assad regime and the moderate opposition and ISIL forces are all accused of major human rights violations and war crimes, with chemical weapons, barrel bombs, beheadings, torture, mass executions and starvation used as weapons of war. Increasingly, the view of much of the international community is that Syria is a failed state in urgent need of a comprehensive political transition.
The Crisis Facing the Assad Regime
Despite Assad being re-elected in 2014 with 88.7% of the vote, the opposition and the majority of the international community denounced the election as illegitimate, because voting had only taken place in government held areas.
On top of this, 2015 has been a bad year for Assad, with the regime losing control of the ancient city of Palmyra as well as being ejected from much of Northern and Eastern Syria. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that Assad now holds just 25% of the country’s territory.
Overall, it seemed that the tables were turning against the regime, which could have forced Assad to reach a political deal to prevent his remaining power-base from being overwhelmed. In July 2015, by his own admission, he was facing a manpower shortage with over 50,000 dead as well as many military defections. His once 300,000 strong military force had been cut in half, and its performance and capabilities severely weakened.
Despite this, it is still too soon to talk about the prospect of an end game, as Assad maintains control over Syria’s strategically most significant areas such as Damascus, Homs, Latakia, Tartus and half of war-torn Aleppo.
His Government continues to accuse the West of supporting terrorists, painting a picture to the Alawites and other minority communities within Syria, that it is either Assad or the Terrorists. However, the one fact that he cannot ignore, is that between January and July, his regime has been responsible for 7,894 civilian deaths, compared to 1,131 by ISIL. Despite ISIL’s atrocities, it is Assad, mainly through the indiscriminate use of aerial bombardment, who remains the greatest source of the country’s many fatalities.
No post-Assad Syria can emerge without the agreement of the Syrian people and the international community, including that of nearby countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. It is also becoming increasingly clear that regime members, alongside the moderate opposition, must play a significant role in any post-Assad administration. Indeed, the state institutions and armed forces will need to maintain law and order, provide stable governance, and act as a legitimate national force to help drive ISIL out of Syria.
In the spirit of the old adage that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my Friend’, the Assad regime could be a potential ally in the fight against ISIL, but this idea has been rejected by the West and some regional nations, as Assad’s barbaric behavior against his own people has totally alienated them.
Are the ‘Moderate Opposition’ Forces Fit to Govern?
It was in 2012 that the US, UK and other western nations recognised the Syrian opposition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Despite this support and that of regional actors, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, the moderate opposition, because of its fractious state and bitter divisions, has struggled to form a compelling alternative to Assad’s government.
The two leading groups within over 1,000 separate rebel groups, are the Free Syrian Army and the Islamic Front. These groups are seen as the moderate opposition fighting both Assad and ISIL forces. Both state categorically that there can be no place for Assad in a post-war Syria, however, the moderate opposition has been infiltrated in certain areas, by terror groups such as the Al-Nusra (an Al-Qaeda affiliate) and the Army of Conquest coalition. Such groups themselves face accusations of war crimes, hindering domestic and international confidence in all Syrian rebel forces.
To form a post-Assad Syria, groups like the Syrian Free Army and Islamic Front must be recognised as legitimate actors by the regime, while the opposition must treat members of the regime in a similar fashion. Both need to be willing to compromise and form an alliance that reflects the will of the people and combats the extremism of the ISIL insurgency.
The Positions of the International Community
The So-Called Western ‘Consensus’
The West faces a dilemma in its desire, after the Arab Spring, to see the emergence of a peaceful and democratic Syria. The dilemma is with the two main actors of the conflict, Assad and ISIL, who have long been seen by the West as a part of the problem and not part of the ultimate solution. In recent weeks, however, there has been a notable softening of the West’s position that Assad should resign immediately for progress to occur.
The US, UK, and France still demand his departure, but no longer see this as a pre-condition for an eventual diplomatic solution. In September 2015, the UK presented a proposal for Assad to lead a transitional government for up to six months before stepping down. This, however, along with any other notion proposing that Assad leaves the presidency has been decisively rejected by the Syrian regime.
Unfortunately, the credibility of Western intervention has been significantly weakened by its historical involvement in the region, most recently with Iraq. Furthermore, divisions within the coalition itself over the poor military performance on the ground by the Western backed rebels and the partial success of the coalition’s airstrikes continue.
Overall, the West’s ever-evolving stance on the conflict can be characterized as one of reacting to events, rather than providing sustained and consistent leadership.
The Pro-Assad Perspective
Since the inception of the conflict, Russia alongside China at the UN Security Council have vetoed resolutions aimed at holding Assad accountable for his regime’s atrocities, resulting in a deadlock regarding a resolution to the crisis at the UN.
In 2013, with Western airstrikes on regime positions imminent, in the light of a major chemical weapon attack in Damascus, Russia led the international community by negotiating the regime’s removal of chemical weapons. The UK Parliament’s rejection of military intervention further strengthened Russia’s diplomatic stance, and as a consequence, the intended airstrikes never occurred.
In recent weeks, despite Western concerns, Russia, with the deployment of 2,000 military personal to its air base in the Assad stronghold of Latakia, is making its presence felt again . Russian airstrikes have followed against anti-Assad forces, whether focused on ISIL or on all anti-Assad forces including US supported rebels, remains to be seen at the time of writing. President Putin recently stated: “Our main goal is to defend the Syrian state”, illustrating the extent of support Russia is willing to provide to prop up the Assad regime.
Overall, it seems likely that Russia is adopting this position as a long-term strategic goal to maintain, if not increase, its influence within the Middle-East, while also deflecting attention away from the crisis in the Ukraine. President Putin has built a decade long relationship with Syria, and as far as his position in the Middle East and the Mediterranean is concerned, the fall of Assad would be, therefore, a diplomatic disaster.
The role of Iran is also significant, as it is the Assad regime’s major regional ally. Iran sees the collapse of the regime as a major threat to its geopolitical interests, and, as Assad himself stated, ‘a victory for Syria is a victory for Iran, we are on the same axis of resistance’. This explains why Iran has sent military experts and financial support to Assad as well as sponsoring his Hezbollah allies.
Has the Russian Intervention Acted as a ‘Game-Changer’
To create a post-Assad Syria, it is clear that members of the regime and the moderate opposition must come together with international support from all nations to fight Syria’s greatest threat – the extremism of ISIL.
In this phase of the conflict, the two actors who offer the greatest chance of creating a sustainable post-Assad Syria are elements of the regime and the moderate opposition, in the form of the Free Syrian Army and the Islamic Front primarily. President Assad’s refusal to resign, as well as the deadlock within the international community, are the two greatest obstacles to the political transition that has been desired by the Syrian people since the Arab Spring. And it is this that has contributed to the large influx of Syrian refugees into Europe.
In recent days, however, the nature of Russia’s intervention has pushed back any prospect of a post-Assad Syria further into the future. As long as Russia’s military intervention continues to target the moderate opposition, not just ISIL, and Putin maintains his support for Assad personally, any chance of a diplomatic consensus appears extremely unlikely.
Sadly, Syria has just become a yet more dangerous place in an already unstable Middle East.
Christopher Bowerin is currently an undergraduate studying Politics and Business Management at Oxford Brookes University. Christopher has a strong interest in European and American politics, Middle Eastern Affairs, international conflicts and post-war reconstruction.
Cover image ‘SYRIA-CRISIS/GORAN TOMASEVIC/REUTERS‘ by a.anis