Syria's eight years of war have changed the world beyond recognition

In addition to tragedies too numerous to count, the international system has been undermined in a way that will be felt for decades

Civil defence members and men inspect a site damaged after an air strike on the besieged rebel-held Al Qaterji neighbourhood of Aleppo on October 11, 2016. Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters
Powered by automated translation

Eight years of war and upheaval, half a million dead and millions more displaced, countless wounded and hundreds of chemical attacks.

The story of a revolution undone. Most Syrians who marched out onto the streets in 2011 to protest the Assad dynasty’s brutality had no inkling of what was to come. Inspired by protests in Egypt and Tunisia, they overcame a generational barrier of fear of public dissent.

Then the whole world conspired to crush them.

The picture today is one in which the nation's president Bashar Al Assad and his Iranian and Russian allies have prevailed over a fractious opposition, that was undermined from within by factionalism and the rise of brutal jihadist groups, and from without by the regime’s impunity and the international community’s abandonment of core ideals.

A bird’s-eye view of the battlefield confirms this, at least on the surface. Mr Al Assad was once on the verge of defeat, his forces retreating to the western part of the country referred to as “useful Syria”. Top officers were assassinated, western officials predicted the regime’s downfall, provincial capitals were falling to rebel militias. Aleppo was split in half and even Damascus seemed vulnerable.

Then, in 2015, Russia intervened – and together with Assad's allies in Tehran and their proxies, such Hezbollah – began clawing back inch after inch of rebel territory. First came the mountainous regions on the Lebanese border, then Homs, which was once the capital of the revolution. With the Kremlin's involvement, the stage was set for a campaign to reclaim Aleppo, then the suburbs of Damascus, followed by Daraa, where the protests were born.

Now Mr Al Assad presides over most of the country, except for three regions. The province of Idlib is under the control of rebels who bear no resemblance to the protesters who bravely defied the regime’s security agencies. Dominated by extremists once affiliated with Al Qaeda, the province is home to three million people, nearly half of whom are internal refugees. A military offensive will spell untold humanitarian catastrophe.

Part of the north is controlled by another faction of rebels, themselves nothing but proxies of neighbouring Turkey, who are more interested in battling their Kurdish enemies than the regime that crushed their rebellion. In the east, those Kurdish militias hold sway with American backing, which may or may not be withdrawn at any moment by presidential tweet.

ISIS, once the sum of all the world's extremist nightmares, has largely been defeated by force of arms, though, predictably, it may see a resurgence. After all, the injustices that created the conditions in which it began to thrive have not been addressed. Syrians are barely getting by, with high levels of poverty and unemployment. Gas shortages signal that a state that was once all-powerful can no longer provide subsidies that citizens previously took for granted.

The UN stopped counting the dead long ago, but estimates are upwards of 500,000. Half the country’s pre-war population of 20m has been displaced, including 5.6m in neighbouring countries. Tens of thousands have gone back, risking arrest or worse, in flight from the prejudice and populism taking hold of Europe.

Siege warfare that led to malnutrition and starvation was repeatedly deployed by the regime. Increasingly, it seemed that laws of war that had been established for a century and a half were nothing more than dust in the wind

The tragedies are too numerous to count and, outside Syria, this war has undermined the international system in a way that will likely be felt for decades.

The international community's failures on Syria are clear for all to see. The UN Security Council has remained deadlocked throughout the conflict, prevented from acting despite the clear threat to international peace and security. It has faced repeated vetoes from Russia and, to a lesser extent, China, even on such basic issues as assigning blame for chemical weapons attacks or guaranteeing the delivery of humanitarian aid.

The war has eroded many of the norms previously held sacrosanct by the global community. Despite an international effort to remove the regime's chemical weapons arsenal, toxic sarin gas and chlorine were repeatedly used against innocent civilians. The regime got away with nothing but a slap on the wrist after violating Barack Obama's "red line".

The savagery of the conflict was on full display before the world, dutifully recorded by rescue workers, citizen journalists and those who braved the danger to report from the frontlines. The bombing of hospitals became routine, as well as so-called “double-tap” strikes, in which the regime and its Russian ally would bomb a site and then do so again when paramedics arrived. Siege warfare that led to malnutrition and starvation was repeatedly deployed by the regime. Increasingly, it seemed that laws of war that had been established for a century and a half were nothing more than dust in the wind.

Bombing hospitals, dumping toxic gas on civilians and starving people to death were no longer out of the ordinary.

Optimists could make the point that this new normal was attributable to the erosion of morality that takes hold in a prolonged civil war. But it was exemplified beyond the borders of Syria, particularly in the collapse of decency that went hand in hand with the wave of refugees fleeing the region.

The rise of anti-immigrant parties throughout Europe was just one component of that collapse. To protect their borders from people fleeing both the Assad regime and ISIS, European powers negotiated a deal that essentially made Turkey its border police force, despite their own widespread criticisms of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s human rights record.

In lawless Libya and a Sudan governed by an indicted war criminal, the EU has continued to fund local authorities, empowering them to halt the flow of migrants, as well as turning back ships bound for the Italian coast – a process that has led to human rights abuses including slavery and human trafficking. In 2018 alone, more than 2,100 people died while attempting to cross the Mediterranean.

Eight years after students scrawled “It’s your turn, doctor” – a subversive reference to Mr Al Assad's previous career as an ophthalmologist – on the walls of a school in Daraa, the peaceful uprising in Syria has morphed into something unrecognisable.

It seems that the rest of the world has, too.