For many of us, 2020 felt like a year in which the world stood still. Well-laid plans were put on hold, reunions with friends and families were postponed, careers took a backseat while we figured out how to take care of children and family while juggling work, and for all too many of us, personal loss that ground down our aspirations and hopes. The relief that the year is almost at an end is palpable, if only for the psychological need to turn the page on the calendar.
This collective stalemate, however, also meant that some of the most implacable conflicts in our part of the world have yet to be resolved. Though battlelines may not have shifted much (one of the few silver linings of the pandemic), people continue to suffer in purgatory, unable to resume their lives, fearful of what is to come when the guns start firing again.
No conflict illustrates this dilemma better than Syria, which despite a largely peaceful year on the military front, has grown steadily worse for its people. The crisis has claimed over half a million lives and half the country has been displaced, yet life is becoming more unbearable and more deprived, for a population that has endured a decade of war and now finds little solace in relative peace.
Bashar Al Assad largely secured military victory in Syria thanks to the backing of Russia and Iran. A series of brutal military campaigns between 2016 and 2018 allowed him to reclaim large swathes of territory that had been lost to rebels in Aleppo, the south, and in the area surrounding the capital Damascus. Only Idlib, a province bordering Turkey, and which stretches along the northern border, remained outside his grasp.
The year began with a renewed push to retake parts of Idlib, which sent hundreds of thousands fleeing to the Turkish border, threatening to create a new refugee crisis. The killing of a dozen Turkish soldiers in an airstrike then prompted a major incursion by Ankara that halted and reversed the regime’s advance back in March, but added to the tensions on the border. Since the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic, these battle lines have largely held.
The coronavirus has ravaged Syria – despite a low official case count of just over 10,000 infections, independent reporting shows the pandemic has raged through society, both in government-controlled areas and in the destroyed environs of Idlib. The regime, which cannot afford the lockdown measures necessary to arrest the virus's spread, has sought to hide the true extent of the suffering, rather than do anything to stop it.
The plague was coupled with an economic crisis that has left the population increasingly destitute. Neighbouring Lebanon's economy, long a crucial access point for foreign currency and a place for Syrians to deposit their savings, collapsed. Syria's economy also suffered, with poverty and unemployment increasing, access to food declining, and fuel becoming increasingly scarce. Long bread and diesel fuel lines are common.
The economic situation has been worsened by stalled reconstruction efforts. The US Caesar Act sanctions imposed extremely tight restrictions on any business dealings in the country, making it impossible for companies and nations that wanted to continue being part of the global financial system to operate there. The impossibility of reconstruction efforts has made an economic recovery, as a consequence of Mr Al Assad's military victory, largely a pipe dream.
Yet even as things got steadily worse for the population, there was no progress on a peace settlement. A constitutional committee established under UN auspices has done little to advance its goal of drafting a new charter for the country. Nor have negotiations involving the main international protagonists in the country, Russia, Iran and Turkey, created any openings for peace, largely because they are mostly interested in pursuing self-serving agendas.
The only cause for optimism has been from outside the country. While hope withers that those responsible for the gravest atrocities of the war will ever be held to account, European courts have begun prosecuting some of the country's war criminals. In Germany, police this year arrested two doctors on suspicion of taking part in torturing political detainees, while two intelligence officers, who were charged with crimes against humanity for their role in the torture, killing and rape of detainees, also stood trial.
There is little basis for hope that in 2021 there might be a resolution to the crisis in Syria. Perhaps the new administration in the US will take an interest after a decade of turning an eye away from the slaughter, and use the leverage of sanctions to push a peace plan in earnest. Perhaps the 10-year anniversary will offer a stark reminder and an impetus for global action to solve the crisis. Then again perhaps the stalemate will continue, relegated to the backs of our minds by the absence of urgency and immediate violence.
But whatever happens, Syrians can ill afford another lost year of desperation.
Kareem Shaheen is a veteran Middle East correspondent in Canada and a columnist for The National