Tuesday 22 Aug 2017 | 17:24 | SYDNEY
What's happening on

Syria

Overview

The consequences of the Syrian conflict for Syrians, for the wider region, and for Western interests in the region are dire. The conflict has killed thousands and created millions of refugees, making it the largest humanitarian crisis since Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. It has also placed enormous economic, social and political pressures on neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq. Syria has become a magnet for thousands of foreign fighters from around the world including Australia. It threatens to create new generation of well-trained and combat-experienced jihadists.    

In the early days of the conflict, conventional wisdom held that while the Assad regime might be able to stay in power for a while, it would eventually fall. As external support for the opposition grew and support for the regime diminished, it was felt that the regime’s military forces would splinter through desertions and battle casualties and eventually turn on the regime. From mid-to-late 2012, momentum lay with the armed opposition. Large tracts of countryside were given up by the Syrian military, which preferred to concentrate its forces in the main population centres. This strategy enabled the opposition forces to rapidly gain territory and left the impression that the regime was near collapse.

From early 2013, however, the Syrian regime began clawing back limited but tactically significant ground from the opposition. The strength of the regime has been its unity, not just amongst its Alawite and Christian constituencies, many of whom believe their survival is tied to that of Assad, but also amongst a significant number of middle-class Sunni supporters. In fact, Assad’s survival has underlined what was evident in earlier uprisings elsewhere in the region. While popular protest was critical to initiating the downfall of regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, these uprisings were only successful once the regime split.

Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition, both inside and outside the country, has been fragmented. Made up of myriad groups, it includes long-time opponents of the regime most notably the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, defectors, secular political activists and Sunni jihadists (both Syrian and foreign). Torn between irreconcilable views on the future of Syria, the various factions and individuals have been unable to demonstrate an ability to organise themselves, let alone their country. In particular, the inability of the opposition outside the country to form a coherent and united leadership has made it barely relevant to the opposition elements inside the country. The result is that there has been little coordination between the military and political elements of the campaign to unseat Assad.

President Assad’s vicious resilience has exposed the hollowness of the West’s approach to Syria. Within six months of the uprising beginning, the United States, the United Kingdom and France had all called for Assad to step down. But since then Assad’s regime has defied confident predictions of its imminent demise. In 2015 Russian intervention in support of the Assad regime shored up Assad's position and called into question any solution to the crisis which would see Assad removed from power.

There is no doubt that Western policymakers have had few good options before them to respond to the Syrian crisis. The most decisive intervention they could make in the conflict is also the one they feel, with good reason, least able to make. Already drained materially by two wars in the region, as well as by the impact the global financial crisis, there is little public support anywhere for another major military foray into the Middle East. Nevertheless, the consequences of this stalemate are clear: the continuation of an already enormous humanitarian catastrophe; deepening regional instability; and the growth and empowerment of extremist groups.

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