The Conflict in Syria

By | September 2, 2021

The so-called Arab Spring of 2011 soon turned into a political winter in almost all the countries where spontaneous popular uprisings challenged authoritarian regimes. Syria collapsed in a bloody civil war and hopes for a regime change have been shattered.

To a large extent, the popular uprisings in country after country failed because the opposition was very divided. And nowhere have the shortcomings of the opposition been clearer than in Syria.

The democracy activists who started the uprising against the country’s ruling family al-Assad in the spring of 2011 demanded the resignation of the president and democratic reforms, but the uprising was soon “cut off” by completely different interests. Syria is now largely an arena for regional powers that are fighting through agents on Syrian soil.

The war also provided scope for the extremist movement Islamic State (IS), which came to conquer important parts of the country. The West initially supported moderate rebel groups against Assad but chose under the pressure of IS ‘growing power in both Iraq and Syria to change perspectives and prioritize the fight against IS.

IS has now been defeated, but the remaining conflicts are many. Ever since the start of the civil war, the UN has had a special envoy who has tried to create peace through negotiations, without success. Attempts to adopt resolutions against the Syrian regime in the UN Security Council have been blocked by Russia and China, and the peace talks that have taken place have run aground.

On the ground, the government side, especially in 2018, took control of many areas where there were rebel strongholds. But the war has not ended because the rebel movements have been forced against Idlib in the northwest; on the contrary, the regime and its Russian allies have moved their war efforts there. And how the relationship between the regime and the Kurdish-controlled area in the north will develop is an open question.

The odds on Assad’s side

Most indications are that Assad’s regime will survive. A study by The Institute for Middle East Studies states that the approximately 125 civil wars * that have taken place since 1945 have lasted for an average of ten years and that the government side in two cases out of three has won a military victory. For revolts to lead to a change of regime, it is practically always required that the state military apparatus is defeated, that it refuses to fight the rebels or that it shares the rebels’ goal of overthrowing the regime.

None of this has been fulfilled in Syria. The army has held together (with a limited number of desertions at a lower level), the security services and the state apparatus have acted loyally and no signs of internal power struggles or attempts at military coups have been registered.

The number of actors in a war is also important according to the study. The more actors there are on the rebel side, the longer the civil war drags on and the more difficult it is to reach a political compromise. In many civil wars, there are several actors (veto players) who have the capacity to continue the war and say no to peace even when other actors can agree. In Syria, there are both internal and external “veto players” who can and want to let the war continue as long as their own demands are not met.

Fruitless attempts at peace

Attempts to bring about peace talks have mainly followed two tracks: One is a UN-led peace process that has had difficulty moving forward due to Russia’s veto in the UN Security Council. It is trying to reach agreement in the UN on a peace plan, which is admittedly vague but aims to create a transitional government with the participation of both the Assad regime and the opposition. At the same time, the major powers have continued to consult the UN Security Council on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, a country located in Middle East according to

The second is a separate track, in which Iran, Russia and Turkey have engaged. In 2017, the rebels and the government in the Kazakh capital Astana met with the three regional powers as mediators. The parties eventually decided to set up four “downsizing zones” in different parts of Syria. As little as the negotiations under the auspices of the UN have brought an end to the war, however, the Assad Government has strengthened its position with success in the battles on the ground. The downsizing zones have been taken over by the regime, one by one.

2018 was marked by offensives in several places, especially east of Damascus, where the Assad regime’s forces occupied Eastern Ghuta, and a major Turkish military operation on the Syrian side of the border. The Assad regime, following successes against rebels east of Damascus and in Homs, expanded its military operations to the south, towards the areas where the revolt against the regime broke out in 2011. By the end of July 2018, the regime, with Russian and Iranian support, had retaken virtually the entire south Syria from the rebel groups and  jihadists , including IS, who had strongholds there. Rebels with relatives were bussed north, most to rebel strongholds in Idlib. The war thus entered a new phase, and the government side is now pushing to also take back Idlib and the Kurdish-dominated areas in the north (read more in Syria: Current politics ).

In 2019, during Donald Trump’s presidency, the United States chose to withdraw almost all of its troops, while Russia strengthened its presence. For many countries, including Sweden, a new question is drawing attention: what will happen to captured IS fighters and their relatives, who in their thousands have been crammed into guarded camps. No order has been made to bring suspected war criminals to justice either.

The Conflict in Syria