Year in review 2014: Syria’s war hasn’t gone away
The fighting between the Assad regime and rebel groups hasn’t stopped, even if the international focus has moved on to the atrocities of ISIL
Far from its hopeful beginnings, in 2014 the Syrian uprising plunged further into an apocalypse of nightmarish horror.
The peaceful demonstrations that broke out in March 2011, asking for political reforms in a stagnant, family-run police state, may as well have taken place in a different universe, those origins increasingly ignored as focus shifted to the headline-grabbing atrocities of ISIL.
It was the growing role of ISIL, and the murder of kidnapped journalists, including James Foley, that finally prompted Washington to openly commit its military to the conflict, with US-led air strikes on ISIL and Al Qaeda targets in Syria and neighbouring Iraq starting in September.
In contrast, earlier atrocities committed by the Bashar Al Assad regime, many of them well documented by United Nations investigators and – in terms of the sheer number of victims – far worse than anything ISIL had managed, failed to bring much more than a verbal reprimand.
Even September’s revelation that the Assad regime had not fully disclosed all of its chemical weapons facilities, as it was obliged to under a deal that averted imminent US attacks on its forces about 12 months earlier, provoked no punitive action from overflying US aircraft.
In 2014, the narrative on Syria was dominated by ISIL, the deadly poison-gas attacks of 2013 fading from international memory. Be sure they have not been forgotten so easily among Syrians.
The US military intervention resulted in the darkly comic scenario of Assad – the man whose violent intransigence and gruesomely abusive security forces had ignited a regional war and so fuelled the meteoric rise of ISIL – offering to cooperate with the US and its regional allies to combat the group.
Months before the US attacks even began, the incongruity of the man who started the fire in Syria offering to help extinguish it had been underscored at the stillborn Geneva II conference. In the safety of peace talks in Europe, a Syrian journalist pointedly asked his country’s information minister, Umran Zaubi, why regime forces had managed to kill civilians with such aplomb but had never bothered to attack the well-known Raqqa headquarters of ISIL.
Zaubi simply ignored the question, an apt symbol of how accountable the regime he serves is to the people it rules over.
US strikes also threatened to push moderate rebels, whom Washington wanted to bolster, further towards the extreme fringe; rebel fighters and commanders watching American aircraft hit ISIL while leaving Assad’s forces untouched wondered if the US was helping or hindering their broader cause.
Grim ironies abound; the actions, and inaction, of the US and its allies, including Turkey and the Gulf countries, helped to keep the rebellion alive but also steered it down a path of militarisation and to the extremism that so decisively reared its head this year.
If 2013 appeared to be a conflict in stalemate, 2014 showed it was no such thing; extremists were gaining ground, and dramatically, while everyone else was losing. ISIL was so extreme that even the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda, Jabhat Al Nusra, first disavowed and then went to war with the group.
That things were going badly wrong, despite billions of dollars being funnelled into rebel groups, was widely seen as the reason behind the replacement of Bandar bin Sultan in April as Saudi Arabia’s point man on Syria.
Whether through deliberate conspiracy, incompetence or indifference, both sides in the conflict, pro-rebel and pro-regime, have helped to fuel the rise of ISIL. Everyone else caught in the war – including millions of Syrian civilians – has suffered irreparable losses.
For those still counting, by the end of 2014, more than 200,000 people had been killed in Syria since March 2011. The conflict has displaced more than 13 million in Syria and neighbouring countries. No one knows how many people have been wounded, nor how badly.
A UN Security Council resolution was finally passed in February 2014, demanding – and requiring – the regime to open up aid routes to besieged areas. The effect was limited, however, and civilians continued to starve in rebel-held suburbs of Damascus, the Syrian authorities paying little more than lip service to the Security Council’s decision. Even as they struggled to gain access, aid agencies also began to see their budgets running dry, with donor fatigue reducing funds for essential supplies. In December, the UN’s World Food Programme announced it would cut aid to almost two million Syrians as a result of a funding shortfall.
Another episode of bleakly dark comedy came in June, with Assad seizing a third term as president in another of Syria’s carefully orchestrated elections – that staple of the police state, managed by the mukhabarat to ensure only the eternal leader can win. After 14 years in office, in July he was inaugurated at the start of another seven-year stretch. If he serves those, the Assad family will have ruled Syria for more than half a century. Assad will also have outlasted yet another US president, his third, since assuming power in 2000.
Playing for time has always been a favourite strategy of the Assads, one that has seen them through previous crises, although nothing of this magnitude. In 2015 Bashar will be able to count on continued financial, military and diplomatic help from key allies Iran and Russia, both still at odds with the West and Arabian Gulf states. All are now ranged against one another in a proxy war on Syria’s battlefields.
The US had warned the war against ISIL will be a long, drawn-out campaign, which may favour Assad and his efforts to hold on to power at all costs. However there are signs that Washington is coming to regard victory against ISIL as impossible without the removal of the Syrian president. A policy review was said to be under way by the year-end.
It would surely take a dramatic change of attitude in the White House to bring about dramatic changes in Syria in 2015. Rebels on the southern front – where moderates are hanging on to their influence better than in the north or east – have made some gains, but are still far from being able to put real, sustained pressure on Damascus.
A new UN envoy, Staffan de Mistura, replaced Ibrahim Brahimi in the summer but was, predictably, walking the same barren ground as his predecessor, shuffling between capitals and talking about ceasefires that have failed to hold. He has no magic wand to wave.
It will need simultaneous decisions in Washington and Moscow, Tehran, Damascus and Riyadh if the bloodshed is to be halted, and there is no reason to expect those decisions will be taken in the coming 12 months, any more than they could have been expected in the previous year.
The cold, hard truth is that, just as it continued to grind through 2014, there is little indication Syria’s war will end in 2015.
Phil Sands is a foreign correspondent for The National and was formerly based in Damascus.
Published: December 25, 2014 04:00 AM