In his history of the early years of the Syrian state, The Struggle for Syria, writer Patrick Seale tried to understand how a country central to the Arab world with a glorious history turned out to be a basket case of a nation-state. Syria, he concluded, was not a power in the region but rather a cockpit where its neighbours fought for supremacy.
Members of Syria’s early parliaments had little sense of nationhood and looked around for who was going to pay the biggest bribe. There was no shortage of willing payers – France, the former colonial power, Britain (working through the then Hashemite monarchy in Iraq), and Egypt – first the creaking monarchy and then the thrusting revolutionary republic of Gamal Abdel Nasser. And then came the Americans, bringing their perfect smiles to the rotten business of Levantine diplomacy.
As Seale wrote, in its early years Syria was “a mirror of rival interests on an international scale”. Indeed, he added, “her internal affairs are almost meaningless unless related to the wider context”.
Anyone who quoted Seale when the Syrian uprising broke out in March 2011, with schoolboys daubing “The people want the fall of the regime” on walls, would have been derided as patronising and out of touch. This was the time when the Syrian people threw off the enforced silence of the 40-year rule of the Assad family. That is indeed how the revolt began. But the self-defence committees founded to protect the people – famously described by American president Barack Obama as “farmers, dentists and folks who have never fought before” – were no match for the ruthless forces of the regime. The rebellion was taken over by foreign fighters and the Salafi-jihadist ideology they imported. To stave off collapse, the regime called in Iran, with its international Shia Muslim militias, and the Russian air force.
Today, almost six years after the graffiti-daubers of Deraa, it is hard to disagree with Seale’s argument. The people of Syria can only agree on one thing – that their country is occupied, though they differ on who is the occupier. Supporters of the regime cite the foreign-backed fighters. The Sunni Muslim majority sees Syria under Iranian occupation and in thrall to Russian neo-imperialism.
Now, after the evacuation of rebel-held eastern Aleppo, there is a new alignment of outside powers representing rival interests in Syria. The Russians and the Iranians are in the ascendant, the Americans are nowhere and Turkey, once the most vocal in demanding the downfall of the Bashar Al Assad, has had to compromise with Russia after its failed Syria policy threatened the stability of the homeland. As for the regime itself, it shelters under Russia’s wing, pursuing its dream of a military victory despite all the talk of a peace process.
Russia and Turkey are pledged to convene peace talks this month in Astana, capital of Kazakhstan. It is hardly surprising that prospects for the success of these peace talks appear no better than previous ones, which turned out to be mere waymarks on the regime’s ruthless climb back from the brink of defeat.
The ceasefire does not include the local Al Qaeda affiliate, the Syria Conquest Front or the leftist Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units known as the YPG, which is one of the adversaries of the Turkish army. These exceptions have had two immediate effects: attempts to unite the rebel forces after the defeat in Aleppo, hard at the best of times, have become impossible. And the Syrian army and its Hizbollah allies are now able to refocus their fire on the Damascus suburbs, with a new push to remove the rebels from the Barada River valley. Not surprisingly, the rebel factions that were listed by the Russians as partners in the peace process have now frozen their discussions, citing abuses by the regime.
A further weakness is that the Russians and the Turks hardly have a clear platform to pursue. Ankara is still insisting that Bashar Al Assad must go, even if it has switched its efforts from that goal towards undermining the Kurdish militias and throttling ISIL. Far from being a grand alliance, the Russians and the Turks appear to have no more than an “entente” – a friendly understanding that may amount to no more than a dialogue.
More serious is the question: where are the Syrians? The voice of ordinary Syrians has largely been silent throughout the revolt, not surprising given the ferocity of the regime’s secret police. But this absence has become glaring now that the outside powers, as in Seale’s time, are pulling Syria in different directions. And who represents the Sunni Muslim majority, some of whom in the absence of other options have given their allegiance to the most uncompromising fighters in rebel ranks?
Given the self-interest of the outside powers, it is hard to see a good outcome for Syria at this stage. The neighbours, after all, put their own interests first: the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, having been burnt so badly by his initial desire to topple the Assad regime, can hardly be expected to see Syria as anything but a killing field for his enemies – the Kurds and ISIL, which claimed responsibility for the New Year’s bombing of an Istanbul nightclub that killed 39 people. The Iranians see Syria as a strategic battle ground, while for Russia it is a place to isolate and destroy the virus of Islamism.
For all the regime’s success on the battlefield, peace in Syria still requires the prospect of a transition away from Mr Al Assad to a leader who has more chance of bringing the different strands of the country together. That person, if they are ever to appear, will require the net of those involved in the peace process to be expanded to include the United Nations, the Arab states and the Americans. As in the 1950s, the meddling neighbours are back in charge, but the job cannot be left to Russia, Turkey and Iran.
Alan Philps is a commentator of global affairs
On Twitter: @aphilps