Syrian conflict enters fourth year with no end in sight

A range of global and local rivalries are combining to prolong the war

Free Syrian Army soldiers in the town of Morek in Hama province. The force is supported by Turkey’s fundamentalist prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photograph: Reuters/Rasem Ghareeb

Free Syrian Army soldiers in the town of Morek in Hama province. The force is supported by Turkey’s fundamentalist prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photograph: Reuters/Rasem Ghareeb


UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon has marked the third anniversary of the beginning of the Syrian conflict by calling upon the international community to resume the Geneva peace talks, which were suspended last month without achieving progress.

The conflict has killed 100,000 to 140,000 people – most of them soldiers and insurgents – driven 2.5 million from the country and displaced 6.5 million within Syria. A staggering 9.4 million Syrians, nearly half the pre-war population of 23 million, are in need of humanitarian assistance. Unicef reports that 10,000 children have been killed and 5.5 million children and youths have no schooling and are being deprived of their future.

Ban has urged the US and Russian sponsors of the talks to “take clear steps to re-energise the Geneva process and “put a stop to this appalling conflict”. He said the Syrian government and opposition must “rise to the challenge” of “fully engaging” in fruitful negotiations.

Few foresaw the scale of the tragedy when the unrest began in January 2011 with small, scattered street demonstrations calling for reform and an end to corruption. The protests escalated into an uprising demanding freedom after a dozen teenage boys in the southern town of Deraa were detained for spray painting on walls the slogan of the Arab Spring: “The people want the fall of the regime.”

On March 15th of that year, protests erupted in Damascus and Aleppo and soon Homs joined in. Damascus cracked down hard on dissent and promised reforms that did not meet the challenge mounted by people power that had brought down the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes and roiled Libya and Yemen.

Mutated into conflict
Syria’s uprising mutated to civil conflict when, in July and August that year, Turkey established the rebel Free Syrian Army and the expatriate opposition Syrian National Council with the aim of overthrowing the government of president Bashar al-Assad.

Turkey’s fundamentalist prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reportedly sought to create and lead a Sunni fundamentalist bloc consisting of Turkey and Syria and transform the region into a modern version of the Ottoman empire.

The struggle in Syria pitted poor against rich. In impoverished rural and urban communities, alienated youth flocked to anti-government militias headed by local strongmen.

Arms poured into Syria from Lebanon and Turkey. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Europe and the US recognised the council as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

Sunni Saudis and Qataris and western powers saw the conflict as an opportunity to weaken Damascus’s main regional allies, Shia Iran and Lebanon’s Hizbullah movement. The West sought Assad’s ousting to deny Russia a foothold in the region.

However, the council, dominated by the outlawed Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, was divided, while the Free Army never established command and control over the estimated 1,700 to 2,000 militias. They wreaked havoc without defeating the regular army, which hammered rebel positions and rounded up rebel supporters.

The resultant stalemate drew tens of thousands of foreign jihadis, some tied to al-Qaeda, while Saudi and Qatari weapons and money led Syrian fighters to either transform their militias or join Sunni fundamentalist factions indistinguishable from jihadi groups.

Nevertheless, the US, France and Britain have continued to speak of “moderates” among the fighters and plan to train and arm them in Jordan in preparation for a spring offensive.

The objective is to recapture the countryside and towns south of Damascus, the regime’s stronghold, and end local ceasefires between warweary government troops and opposition forces.

On the ground in the north, insurgents have contained al-Qaeda offshoot Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, while government forces have made slow gains in Aleppo province.

On the regional front, a new Arab “cold war” has been brewing. Saudi Arabia and its allies have withdrawn ambassadors from Qatar, which stands accused of meddling in these countries’ internal affairs by supporting the Brotherhood – declared a “terrorist group” – as well as jihadi elements fighting in Syria.

The Shia fundamentalist- dominated Iraqi government – allied to Syria and Iran – has accused Saudi Arabia and Qatar of “terrorism” for funding Sunni militants rebelling in western Iraq.

Cold war divide
On the international front, the old cold war divide between East and West has resurfaced, with Russia and, to a lesser extent, China supporting Assad while the US and its partners sponsor the political and military opposition.

From the outset of the Syrian conflict, Moscow has refused to abandon Syria, Russia’s sole foothold in the Middle East, while the US and the western powers have called on Assad to resign. Russian outrage over western involvement in Ukraine could encourage Moscow to provide Damascus with the arms to counter any fresh military campaign.

The Ukraine crisis has sidelined the Syrian conflict, ensuring that Syrians will continue to suffer and die as the war continues into its fourth year, spilling over into Lebanon and Iraq and threatening the entire region.

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