The Syrian war - the failure of the international system
Photo: Shutterstock - Homs
The Syrian war celebrated its tenth birthday on March 15. While someone's tenth birthday is generally a day of joy, the Syrian war is comparable to the suffering of a person with a chronic illness that has lasted for ten years already. The motive of the terrible torture was that, on a beautiful spring day ten years ago, encouraged by the uprisings of other Arab countries, or perhaps just bored, schoolboys in Daraa wrote “It is your turn, doctor!” on a wall, referring to the medical education of Bashar al Assad. The Syrian authorities reacted in the usual way - the boys were arrested and tortured. What was unusual, however, was the way in which the otherwise usual injustice in Syria this time triggered a wave of large-scale protests: during protest marches across Syria, protesters demanded the exit of al Assad's regime. Demonstrators came to demand democracy even in the suburbs of the capital, Damascus. Instead of dialogue, the regime, which had long been promising reform, responded with violence, using the entire power apparatus: the police, the military and paramilitary groups. According to President Assad, the country's population was not yet ready for democracy.
The snowball grew into an avalanche in a year: the opposition took shape and by 2012 a civil war had taken over the entire country. So many local, regional, and global forces have intervened in the Syrian war that the question of whether the Syrian war can be called a civil war is justified. The war in Syria is not limited to the country itself and its impact extends far beyond the Middle East. It has shaken the whole world like no previous conflict. The following overview is also fitting as a requiem for Syria - at least for the Syria as it was known until 2011.
Foreign and domestic policy implications
As a result of the Syrian conflict, millions of refugees have embarked on a difficult journey, a modern-day Exodus to Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, and to a lesser extent to the United States and Europe. Although relatively few refugees reached Europe, a wave of far-right populism erupted on our continent. Indirectly, the influx of war refugees led to the right-wing populist Trump becoming president of the United States and gave impetus to Brexit, the unity of the European Union cracked, and transatlantic relations deteriorated.
The Syrian war opened a power vacuum arbitrarily filled by the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or the terrorist organization Daesh, which temporarily rendered the Iraqi-Syrian border meaningless and peaked ethnic and religious tensions. Daesh can also be indirectly blamed for the fact that two long-time NATO allies - the United States and Turkey - have ended up in the worst relationship in several decades due to differences over Syrian Kurdish fighters. In addition to the hundreds of thousands of civilians in the suburbs of Damascus, the Syrian regime killed almost one and a half thousand civilians with chemical weapons, but such a blatant violation of international agreements did not cross anyone's red line. In the muddy waters, Iran expanded its sphere of influence and went beyond what it had ever achieved since the Iranian Islamic Revolution. Russia has asserted itself so strongly in Syria that its decisions are able to affect US allies and the weaker democracies in Eastern Europe.
On Syrian territory, the Assad regime has committed unprecedented atrocities with impunity. About half a million civilians have been killed in the war and about 100,000 have gone missing. More than half of the population has had to flee their homes, they are either internally displaced or behind the border. Half of the country's infrastructure is destroyed or unusable, and more than a third of homes have been completely destroyed. In many places, the remaining population is ruled by warlords and armed groups. Although the United States and its allies put an end to Daesh militarily and liberated the occupied territories, over the past year, the warmongers have rallied and carried out sporadic attacks in Assad-controlled areas, so that the population remains under constant fear. According to quite a few experts, it is only a matter of time before they try to take over a larger territory again.
Extensive military activity in Syria has ceased to date, but economists say it will take at least 50 years to recover from the socio-economic crisis and this will cost 250-400 billion US dollars. Corruption is rampant in the country and officials are incompetent. With the fuel and food voucher system, the state is trying to take over the economy even harder. The example of Iraq also confirmed the fact that the construction of infrastructure alone will not help to restore social cohesion. Tensions in the economy and society cause tensions within the regime itself, which in turn means an increase in dissatisfaction also within the previously loyal sections of society who supported the regime during active war. According to the United Nations, eight out of ten people in Syria live below the poverty line, and Syria has also not been left untouched by the Lebanese financial crisis: together with the Lebanese pound, the Syrian pound has fallen to an all-time low.
The damage to cultural life is enormous: Syria has historically been an Arab cultural centre, the engine of literature and art. Most of the Syrian cultural elite has now emigrated, although the parties to the conflict have tried to show that intellectuals support namely them. A significant part of the country's Christian minority has also left. There are no prospects for reform, national reconciliation, and economic renewal. Syria is not expected to recover.
Why did Assad stay in power?
A president, who had inherited a powerful repressive system that an Estonian can compare to the Stalin-era NKVD and the subsequent KGB, resorted to large-scale violence in 2011. A warning example was the pathetic end of Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi, but Iran's experience in 1979 had shown that thanks to maximum violence, the population could in some cases be forced to surrender or flee. In addition, the Syrian opposition has been fragmented. Under an authoritarian regime, this is quite common, as potential adversaries are provoked against each other for a long time and attempts by the opposition to join forces are thwarted at/from the outset. This is also the case in Syria. One tool in this process is corruption.
Of course, the key to Assad's survival is Russia – this country's geopolitical selfishness, its disregard for human rights and democracy in support of the Syrian regime was, in fact, the most decisive factor in why, ten years later, the regime is still alive, albeit on feet of clay.
When the regime, with the support of Russia and Iran, recaptured Aleppo in 2017 at the cost of numerous lives, many got the impression of Assad's victory. The reality was something else and Syria has simply changed beyond recognition. The regime controls only three-quarters of the country's territory and actual population; and only 15% of the country's land border. The sea border may as well be considered as under Russian control.
In the short term, the population lacks the security and motivation to return home: they know very well that they will build it up to be ruled by Assad. Neither Iran nor Russia is able or willing to provide more serious aid - either country has its own economy in a state of fragility. However, both are actively lobbying for neighbouring countries to drive the Syrians home despite the political agreement. In this way, they hope to encourage reluctant Western countries to financially support their sphere of influence. The release of Syria from sanctions has also recently been recommended by the United Arab Emirates, where the Syrian regime and oligarchs loyal to it have invested more and more in recent years. However, the rich countries still follow a common and also morally justified line - no aid will flow into the country until a political solution is reached.
The status of Idlib Governorate and the east bank of the Euphrates River remains unresolved. As the regime has no desire for a political solution, the war has actually not ended. True, thanks to the support of Russia and Iran, the trumps are in Assad's hands. However, the victory is not here, because 10 years is nothing in the history of one country - the price of his continued reign is the transformation of Syria into a vassal state of Russia and Iran. However, those who constantly challenge its sovereignty continue to be many: Turkey and its supported opposition, which has occupied the border areas, the United States, the Kurds, and Israel, which is delivering military strikes across the border. In addition, Iranian-backed Shiite militias such as Hezbollah and Sunni groups (including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and Daesh). Assad's victory can be classified as a Pyrrhic victory.
Of course, observers turned their eyes to the new US administration, but President Biden is unlikely to change course in Syria. The main concerns in the region are Iran's tensions with Saudi Arabia and the Iranian nuclear program. Syria, which has historically been friends with the Soviet Union and later with Russia, has not really been the focus of previous US administrations either. Many have a pessimistic view of the expectation and hope that the Biden administration will start pushing Syria strongly towards a political solution, and the regime is not yet expected to signal that it will go along such an initiative at all. A Catch-22 situation: US and EU intervention is not expected until a meaningful political solution is outlined, political prisoners are released, and death certificates are issued to those killed. On the other hand, these countries are also not ready to take the lead very actively in the process either, because Russia's views on Syria differ drastically from those of the West. This is how the conflict at the national level continues to fester for an unknown period.
The death toll in the Syrian war and the inability of the international community to respond adequately to the humanitarian catastrophe there call into question the vitality of the entire international order. Of the approximately 18 million people remaining in Syria, more than 11 million need humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations.
Syria will not get back up on its feet in our lifetime. The return of even a slightly significant number of refugees is utopian today, because national reconciliation is not on the horizon. Some returnees have fallen victim to repression, and this is not building confidence. The number of Syrians who recognize Assad as head of state remains limited in these circumstances, as it is very well known that the key to Assad's survival is violence. About 6 million live outside Syria and their return is unlikely. One of the reasons for Assad's intransigence is that everything that has happened is very well documented - not so much by the conventional media, but by the participants and witnesses. A lot of documents and other materials have been taken out of Syria, thanks to which war criminals may one day be brought to justice.
The Syrian war is a big and ugly lesson, because war is not a natural phenomenon, it is the result of the choices of decision-makers. It is good that an irrelevant small country like Estonia can contribute to alleviating the problems caused by the war, because, as seen above, they also affect us. Of the humanitarian organizations, the Estonian Refugee Council and NGO Mondo aid Syrian refugees with funding from the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As an elected member of the UN Security Council, Estonia emphasizes the need to take responsibility for crimes committed in Syria and to identify the perpetrators, for example by stepping up investigations into crimes committed with chemical weapons. It will be clear in July whether the UN will be able to continue to provide cross-border humanitarian aid. Last year, the extension of cross-border assistance was discussed twice, and Estonian diplomats advocated that a group of like-minded people (EU, US, UK) be as united as possible in voting. Estonia's general starting point is that in the absence of unity, it is difficult to resist Russia's demands. The Estonian public should be aware of this historical lesson and be guided by humanity, because behind every refugee or victim figure/number there is a real person with their own story. However, those who say that the people of the Middle East do not know how to practice democracy should remember what happened in Europe only 70-80 years ago.