Civil war has raged in Syria for four years, but in the past months rebel forces have made substantial gains. This counters the view that Bashar al-Assad was perhaps winning the war; but the opposition is not winning either.
The International Crisis Group say that the status quo between the rebels and regime remains unscathed as neither side is about to deal with the rising power of the jihadis. Their backers can help to change the current impasse but the ICG argue that a new policy framework is needed to deal with the conflict.
The regime controls western Syria; the rebels have made serious gains in the south while the Islamic State group have bastions in central Syria. The Nusra Front is in northern Syria, and is abolishing US-backed rebel factions in Idlib and Aleppo. US air raids drove IS out of Kurdish areas, east of Aleppo, but its hold has debilitated elsewhere.
The regime’s military power is flailing, and forced it to rely on foreign fighters from Hezbollah and Iranian Shia militias. Islamist factions joining Nusra Front have done so to help topple the regime but reject a transnational agenda. The main opposition groups cannot continue their fight without considerable foreign backing.
The conflict has been gruesome, with a list of human rights violations. Human Rights Watch has noted escalation in indiscriminate attacks in civilian areas. Proscribed weapons have been used, as well as rape, arbitrary detention, disappearances, torture and the use of child soldiers.
The war has created masses of refugees. Accompanying this is a breakdown of education, public services and an outbreak in epidemics. All states have placed the elimination of the IS as at the top of their agenda. This is the wrong approach and radicalization in Syria has made IS stronger.
The main regional players – Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey – view the war in terms of military strength and territorial control. Moscow and Tehran happily “underwrite” the regime and make no efforts to solve the crisis diplomatically.
After the airstrikes by Russian jets in Syria two weeks ago and the US-Russian jets encounter in the air space of Syria, the rift between US and Russia is broadening. Russian jets, according to Pentagon, have targeted US backed rebels in lieu of IS whereas Russia denied it. Such incidents changed US policy towards training rebels, fighting against Assad regime, and now instead of training rebels in Syria, US has decided to just arm them and almost two days back they’ve given anti-tank missiles to rebels to give a good resistance to Assad forces and it’s allies. The situation in Syria is worsening.
Searching a Solution
Assad cannot rule in a post-war Syria if peace is to last and there is no denying that Iran has a strong presence in the Levant region.
Supporters of the opposition need to come together with two objectives: to support non-ideological factions and incentivize Islamist factions that might be willing to distance themselves from transnational groups like Nusra. This would enable the mainstream opposition to take ground from the regime.
The US should have very clear terms to negotiate a peace between the warring factions, including reforms, security and a pluralistic society. Europe on its part needs to ramp up humanitarian efforts and alleviate the various crises affecting the country, better coordinating aid it does provide.
Iran does not need to support the regime if it still has links to Hezbollah. A new government in Syria would not mean that Iran would be threatened by Damascus.
Turkey is crucial in re-balancing the dynamics within the rebel camp, and their key concerns should be secure borders, the return of Syrian refugees, leaving the Kurdistan areas as they are, and creating a pluralistic society.