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



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.

Death of a Lebanese terrorist

They say that the wheels of justice turn slowly, but they do turn. And if the reports of the death of the terrorist Khalid Sharrouf are confirmed, then it meant that he died as a Lebanese, rather than Australian citizen (he was stripped of his Australian citizenship early this year). This doesn’t

Syria: A farewell to arms

Last week’s confirmation that the CIA-run program to vet and arm Syrian rebel groups in the north of the country was coming to an end was a tacit acknowledgement of the flaws in the scheme. It should also have come as little surprise as, if there has been one thing that Trump has been consistent

US making policy on the run in Syria

Two events overnight in Syria have demonstrated just how complicated the situation continues to be. In the first instance, Iran joined Russia and the United States in lobbing missiles at Islamic State targets inside Syrian territory. The statement from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)

Syria: The battle for the east

Sryian President Bashar al-Assad claimed in September 2016 that he intends to re-establish control over the whole of Syria, and recent actions indicate this remains his strategic aim. In the west of Syria, realising he did not have sufficient combat power to defeat the armed opposition militarily

Syrian safe zones: Not there yet

Last Thursday in Astana the latest agreement that attempts to establish some limited cessation of hostilities in Syria was signed. The signatories (and hence guarantors) were Turkey, Iran and Russia. Given this is the fourth attempt at a cessation of hostilities, prospects for its success appear

Missile strikes do not signal US shift on Syria

In a complex and confusing civil war in which decisions can result in unforeseen consequences, the Trump Administration was presented with a relatively straightforward choice and with a perfect target. Syrian military aircraft, launched from Shayrat airbase in Homs, carried out an attack

Assad and chemical weapons: The regional repercussions

The renewed use by the Assad regime of chemical weapons, possibly sarin, against civilian population centres in Syria - most recently in Idlib - is immoral, illegal, inhuman and counter-productive in every respect. It serves no military or political purpose. In terms of diplomacy, it is a complete