A Decade of War in Syria: Political Transition Is Still the Answer

The middle of March marks the tenth anniversary of the civil war in Syria. It began in the south of the country when regime forces resorted to violence to quell protests against the Assad regime’s authoritarianism, demanding a transition to democratic rule. By then, the waves of the Arab Spring had swept several other Arab countries and succeeded in toppling two regimes––in Tunisia and Egypt––while others were still fighting against calls for change. Today, Syria stands as a salient example of a repressive regime that used military power to silence its opponents. In the process, it caused the destruction of cities and the expulsion of millions of Syrians from their homes to become either internally displaced persons (IDPs) or refugees in neighboring and distant countries. Indeed, Syria’s society and economy, as well as its international standing, have borne the brunt of the regime’s battle to perpetuate the authoritarian rule of President Bashar al-Assad.

Syria’s Sociopolitical Crises

According to the World Food Programme, 9.3 million Syrians were food insecure in 2020, with an additional 2.2 million at risk of becoming so. Prices of food items have soared, salaries have stagnated, and domestic food production has taken a dive. As of February 4, 2021, almost 5.6 million Syrians were refugees, the majority of whom are concentrated in neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt. Another 6.2 million are IDPs, 2.5 million of whom are children. This dire humanitarian crisis promises to continue so long as there is no resolution to the political stalemate in the country and as Assad refuses to allow a peaceful transition of power to a democratic system of government.

After a decade since the start of its Arab Spring protests, Syria is de facto divided into three general areas, the borders of which have not seen much change over the last two years.

After a decade since the start of its Arab Spring protests, Syria is de facto divided into three general areas, the borders of which have not seen much change over the last two years. The first and largest is controlled by the Assad regime and it is where some 12 million Syrians live. This area lacks sufficient necessities of food and cooking oil as well as government services, such as water and electricity supplies. Economic indicators show serious troubles: the Syrian currency, the lira, has collapsed vis-à-vis the US dollar, inflation is soaring, and poverty levels are unprecedented.

The second region is the one controlled by the American-supported, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in the northeast. While free from regime control, this area is still subject to the same socioeconomic conditions as the rest of the country. The third area is in the northwest, in Idlib province, and controlled by what is left of the Syrian opposition. About three million people live in that enclave, many of them in refugee camps after they left other areas of the country as the regime quelled the rebellion.

There is now a feeling of stalemate in the entire country. The political crisis that began in March 2011 with youth demonstrations became a wider movement for radical change in government and authority. Exacerbating the continued stalemate is the specter of physical destruction of the country following military operations in which the regime systematically destroyed neighborhoods and expelled people. After ten years of war, the death toll in Syria has reached almost 600,000, a calamitous total that will deter national plans no matter the nature of the political system that will emerge.

The Failure of International Diplomacy

Another session of the Syrian Constitutional Committee in Geneva in January failed to bridge serious differences between the Syrian regime and the opposition. Like every other time since the formation of the committee in 2019, the UN envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, expressed his disappointment in the stalemate. In a report to a UN Security Council meeting on February 10, Pedersen said that the regime rejected his recommendations on steps to move forward. At that meeting, Russia blocked agreement on a way to jump-start a peace process for the country. To be sure, Russia and the Syrian regime are the main obstacles to the implementation of Resolution 2254 of 2015, which represents a culmination of serious international efforts that began in 2012 to pave the way to a peaceful political resolution of the Syrian crisis.

It is important to note that the Constitutional Committee has not garnered the approval of the Syrian opposition, which considers it an infringement on Resolution 2254; nevertheless, said opposition participates in the meetings to avoid appearing as an obstacle to a UN plan.

It is important to note that the Constitutional Committee has not garnered the approval of the Syrian opposition, which considers it an infringement on Resolution 2254; nevertheless, said opposition participates in the meetings to avoid appearing as an obstacle to a UN plan. Other attempts at circumventing 2254 include the Russia-created Astana talks in the Kazakh capital and the Sochi negotiations in Russia. These failed because of the Syrian regime’s refusal to discuss a political transition from the current government headed by Bashar al-Assad. Additionally, UN efforts have been stymied by the reluctance of Russia and Iran to pressure the Syrian president who, since the start of the Syrian revolution in 2011, has rejected any change to the status quo in the country.

The American-Russian Struggle over Syria

While the international community has failed to address the ongoing Syrian crisis, there has been a notable absence of the United States’ influence regarding a political solution. One important factor since 2011 has been the almost complete divergence of policies between the United States and Russia toward Syria. This was obvious on two specific occasions: the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against its people in 2013, and the Russian military intervention in the conflict in September 2015.

On the first occasion, then-President Barack Obama preferred a diplomatic solution to an imminent military strike against Assad’s forces. He agreed to a Russian proposal to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal in the hope that Assad would be deprived of weapons of mass destruction against his people. But soon after the agreement, Assad resorted to the use of barrel bombs against entire city neighborhoods, in the process causing mass casualties, widespread destruction of civilian infrastructure, and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Syrians.

On the second occasion, Obama watched as Russia interfered militarily in Syria and gave needed assistance to Assad’s forces, which were suffering major defeats at the hands of the opposition. At the time, President Obama opined that Russia was getting itself into a quagmire as Syria promised to be an intractable issue. That Obama Administration withdrawal from Syria had two consequential outcomes: 1) Syria was ceded to Russia in the battle for influence in the eastern Mediterranean, and 2) the Syrian opposition lost the decisive support of an international power in its battle for Syria. In essence, Obama’s reticence to punish Assad on the first issue gave Assad the freedom to do whatever he wanted in Syria. Further, the American president’s tacit acceptance of Russia’s intervention allowed the latter to dictate the way the crisis was to develop after 2015.

Obama’s reticence to punish Assad on the use of chemical weapons gave Assad the freedom to do whatever he wanted in Syria. Further, the American president’s tacit acceptance of Russia’s intervention allowed the latter to dictate the way the crisis was to develop after 2015.

The situation did not change much during the Trump Administration which, for all intents and purposes, gave Russia a free hand in Syria. Washington limited its role to fighting the so-called Islamic State and helping the Syrian Kurds establish a semi-autonomous enclave in northeastern Syria under the leadership of the Syrian Democratic Forces. The only actor of consequence that could force Russia to recalibrate its activities in Syria became Turkey which, for reasons of self-interest and strategic concerns, wanted to have impact on Syrian developments as well as limit the ambitions of Syria’s Kurds. In fact, only Turkey’s preferences and opposition to full victory by Assad checked Russia’s designs.

President Joe Biden reappointed former Obama Administration officials who had previously dealt with the Syrian crisis and gave them even higher positions in his own cabinet. The question thus becomes whether those involved in formulating foreign policy––such as Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan––will produce the same policies toward the country. Importantly, how will they approach Syria considering that the Biden Administration is currently busy planning how to address Iran’s nuclear program and its regional role? From what is publicly available in the short period since January 20, the Biden Administration appears to want to make amends for previous mistakes that its current officials made when they worked in government under Obama. Indeed, Secretary Blinken minced no words as a campaign advisor to Biden, in September 2020, when he told The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin that the Obama Administration made mistakes in Syria and that he and others would like to have another opportunity to get things right.

What Can Be Done?

Ten years after the start of the Syrian war, there still is an opportunity to make things right. Blinken and his cohorts must use their diplomatic clout and skills to amend past mistakes. Looking at what is possible, four important issues are paramount, and the United States is well-placed to help realize them:

  1. Addressing the ongoing and festering problem with terrorist organizations in Syria. Over the last few weeks, the Islamic State (IS) has reemerged in both Syria and Iraq, once more promising to be a security threat. In January alone, IS killed more than 150 Syrian soldiers and militia members in the Syrian desert. On January 21, IS claimed responsibility for an attack in a Baghdad market that killed 32 people and injured 110 others.
  2. Finding a solution for the Syrian refugee crisis, which has become a serious problem for neighboring countries and others in Europe.
  3. Intervening to effect a political transition in Syria to a pluralistic and democratic system. Past mistakes that have resulted in the entrenchment of the Syrian regime with Russian and Iranian assistance must be rectified. Perhaps a first step can be appointing a special envoy to Syria with the power to negotiate on behalf of the administration.
  4. Working to force the withdrawal of foreign forces and sectarian militias from the Syria. Indeed, forcing Assad to accept compromises and a political transition requires the ending of such foreign military presence.

Radwan Ziadeh is a Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Radwan and read his previous publications click here

Photo Credit: SOHR