Despite all that has happened in Syria in the past five years, I have remained optimistic about matters concerning the future. It is this hope that has kept so many people alive thus far, but what will happen when our hope dies out?
Recently, there have been a number of developments regarding the situation in Syria; developments that promise a better future. They put forth a solution, however this solution does not take Syrians into account. In fact, it acts at the expense of Syrians.
Since the Russians began to intervene in Syria, prospects have been dire. The balance of powers has started leaning towards Assad forces, the opposition has been weakened, hundreds of civilians die every day, and ISIL remains unaffected by Russia’s actions. Although the Russians claim to be combating the “terrorist” groups in Syria, their definition of terrorism is quite different from that of the citizens of Syria.
For some time, the opposition was able to repel the attacks of Assad’s forces. Russian support was not enough to push the opposition back as much as they had hoped. With the start of the recent Geneva talks, Assad has crafted a plan to regain Aleppo, at one time Syria’s largest city and economic capital. The government had lost control over the city in mid 2012, and has been trying to regain it ever since. The Russian support has increased drastically and reached more than 100 airstrikes a day in Aleppo and its northern countryside, cutting down the support lines of the opposition from Turkey. This has also been accompanied by an alliance between Assad’s forces and what is known as the “Syrian democratic forces” consisting mainly of the Kurdish YPG (people’s protection units), who are supported by the United States. This means that the Syrian opposition is now fighting on three fronts: one against Assad, one against the YPG and another against ISIL, under the intensive airstrikes of the Russians.
All this is hard to comprehend at once. But it gets ever more complex. Saudi Arabia has recently announced its willingness to send troops to Syria to fight ISIL, as has Turkey. However, these actions are farfetched, as they are in limbo until approved by the US lead coalition. Meanwhile, Turkey has been attacking the Kurdish YPG, a US ally, because the YPG falls under Turkey’s definition of a “terrorist group”. Essentially, a NATO member is now attacking a US ally. The US foreign minister, John Kerry, warned Turkey against such actions. However, the Turks continued.
In the midst of all this, Syria’s future remains shrouded in ambiguity, but all these actions signal possible scenarios of what is to come. In order to understand the worst case scenario, the most important things to understand are the American and the Russian stances and interests. The US has always declared its support of the opposition. However, if we look closely at the development of the political stance of the White House, we can see a clear decline in its opposition to Assad. In 2011, Obama declared that Assad had lost his legitimacy and must leave immediately. Yet, today’s US only calls for a ceasefire and the formation of a transitional government, without word of Assad’s future.
On the other hand, Putin has only increased his support for his ally Assad. In 2011, Russia provided only political support in the international community, whereas now, its military is deeply involved in the war with daily airstrikes, arms and troops support. This has only made the government stronger, making it harder to overthrow the regime. Since last September, Russia has increased its support for the government, while the opposition’s support has been decreasing. If nothing else changes, the opposition will lose most of the area they control now to the government, ISIL and the Kurdish YPG, in a matter of months. In this case, the whole purpose of the revolution will be defeated and Syria will face the risk of division.
- The Kurdish State (Rojava):
At the beginning of the revolution, the Kurds in Syria were some of the first to join the uprising. Although they formed about 12% of Syria’s population, they were heavily oppressed by the government. Around 2 million Kurds were denied of Syrian citizenship. However, when the revolution started, the government wanted to ally with the Kurds. In 2011, the government granted citizenship to the 2 million Kurds. When they formed a military force, the government forces abandoned some cities to the Kurdish militias now known as YPG. Since then, there have been no clashes between Assad’s forces and the Kurdish YPG. In fact, they now collaborate against the opposition.
The Kurds have always desired their own state, whether in Turkey, Iraq, Iran or Syria. It seems that they are willing to do anything to get them one step closer to the creation of this Kurdish state. Indeed, they are even willing to collaborate with the very people they had risen against at the beginning. In doing so, they will turn their back on those that stood beside them and fought for their rights. The Syrian opposition, represented by the FSA (Free Syrian Army) stood beside the Kurds in their struggle to free the city of Kobane from ISIL. However, the YPG continues to attack the FSA-controlled areas to expand their territory and support the Russian efforts in weakening the opposition in exchange for Russia’s support.
Even before they received support from Russia, the YPG was still well funded, thanks to the US. The Kurds were considered the only reliable and trustworthy ally in Syria that the US could support to combat ISIL. The US has given logistic, physical and airstrike support to the Kurds in their search to expand their territory. They have also condemned the recent Turkish attacks on the YPG and have urged Turkey to stop the attacks. The US is now renewing the military airport of Rmeilan in north-eastern Syria, which happens to be under control of the Kurds.
The Kurds are by far the most supported and funded military group. With all the support they are getting, especially from the US and Russia, it is likely that they will achieve their goal of a Kurdish self-governing state in Syria, which might have the potential to unite with the existing self-governing state in Iraqi Kurdistan.
- Assad’s State:
Bashar Al Assad’s recent statements on the proposed ceasefire have given us an insight into what his plans might be. Although he expressed the willingness of the regime to sign a truce after setting some conditions, he recently said, “They say they want a truce within a week…Who can implement the necessary conditions and requirements? No one.” When Assad was asked about regaining control over all Syrian territory, he said, “This is a goal we are seeking to achieve without any hesitation.” This indicates reluctance to take the necessary measures to implement the truce as soon as possible. This scenario is far from being achieved. It is out of the question that Assad might be able to regain control over all of Syria. However, he is trying to regain as much as possible at the moment. He is also targeting specific areas and cities that are most important. This includes Damascus, the capital; Aleppo, the economic center; Homs, an industrial heart; the coastline, and all that is in between. He is relying on Russian and Iranian support to eliminate his one and only enemy, the Syrian opposition and mainly the FSA. He has also formed an important coalition with the Kurdish YPG. Assad’s counselor, Bouthaina Shaaban, explicitly declared the Kurdish forces as “Syrians working to liberate the territory of Syria, in cooperation with the Syrian army, the Russian Aviation and the National Defence Forces”. She also said that the government did not have any problems with the progress of the Kurdish YPG. This indicates an agreement between Russia, a supporter of the regime, and the US, a supporter of the Kurds.
Although the Syrian regime declares ISIL as one of their enemies, government forces have not carried out any attacks against them. All of the regime and its allies’ efforts are directed towards eliminating the Syrian opposition. Some reports even suggest that the regime purchases oil from ISIL, since most of the oil fields are in the territory controlled by them.
In the future?
It is very unclear where the situation in Syria is heading, but it is clearly not heading toward a happy ending. The demands of the people who went out protesting for freedom and democracy in March 2011 are certainly not on top of anyone’s list right now. The Syrian opposition which aimed to achieve such demands today suffers from severe lack of funding and support, fighting on three different well-supported fronts. If no change arises in the international stance on the issue, it is highly likely that the opposition will be eliminated and with that, the dreams of freedom for millions of Syrians will also be destroyed.