5 moments to understand why the war in Syria enters its seventh year without a glimpse of peace

5 moments to understand why the war in Syria enters its seventh year without a glimpse of peace


The war in Syria is entering its seventh year and there is no near end.

What began as popular protests for a change of government became a battlefield in which forces from different countries have intervened.

It is estimated that more than 300,000 people have died and that there are millions of displaced people.

The evolution of the conflict can be divided into five phases.

1- From the protests to the war

Almost 18 months elapsed between the start of the peaceful protests in February 2011 and the moment, in July 2012, when the situation in Syria was declared by the Red Cross as a civil war.

Copyright of the AFP image
Image caption The city of Deraa, in the south of Syria, was one of the first places in which popular demonstrations against the government were seen. It was the beginning of 2011.

In that period, the narrative of the international community changed: it went from being one in which events were framed in the context of the Arab Spring and the search for a reform in the government system to one in which they referred to a prolonged military conflict.

Syrian opposition that emerged in this period reflected and continues to reflect a broad movement and not a cohesion force onada .

The government resorted to increasingly stronger repressive measures, which led to the proliferation of an increasing number of armed opposition groups.

Copyright of the AFP image
Image caption This week the image of Mohammad Mohiedine Anis in his destroyed house in Aleppo went around the world.

The Free Syrian Army was formed in the summer of 2011, while Islamist and jihadist groups such as Ahrar al Sham and the Nusra Front were formed in late 2011 and early 2012, respectively.

While the West doubted which organizations to support , there was a chaotic flow of funds from regional powers and individual donors in the Persian Gulf and the Syrian diaspora.

2- The red line of Obama

The then president of the United States, Barack Obama, had declared in 2012 that the United States would punish any use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government.

Destroyed area
Copyright of the REUTERS image
Image caption The Syrian opposition expressed its disappointment at the attitude shown by the Obama administration when there were reports about the use of chemical weapons by the government.

But when it was reported that Bashar al-Assad’s government had launched a chemical attack on the outskirts of Damascus in August 2013, the United States did not intervene and instead accepted an offer from Russia to get Syria to dispose of its chemical weapons.

The Obama administration continued to insist that the agreement with Moscow was good.

But on the ground it helped rather to embolden President Al Asad and his Russian and Iranian allies, as it seemed a way to legitimize the use of non-chemical weapons .

Those events destroyed any hope that the opposition and its regional supporters could have over direct military intervention by the United States.

In addition to undermining the potential US influence in the peace negotiations, both the Syrian government and its international supporters would operate with little fear for possible US sanctions.

After President Obama’s decision not to implement his red line on chemical weapons, the West’s support for “moderate” armed groups was overshadowed by the support of regional powers such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to Islamist groups .

A boy with a face mask
Copyright of the REUTERS image
Image caption In 2015, the UN blamed the Syrian government for two more chemical weapons attacks.

The jihadist groups skillfully tried to take advantage of the weakness of other groups to increase their power and influence within the rebel movement and, in fact, sometimes targeted the units of the Free Syrian Army.

Paradoxically, this meant that, by 2015, moderate groups increasingly depended on jihadists on the battlefield.

The military alliances of the Syrian government with Hezbollah and Shiite militias not only reinforced the sectarian Sunni jihadist narrative, but also facilitated the rise of radical groups.

3- The emergence of the self-styled Islamic State

The radical group calling itself the Islamic State (EI) entered the Syrian conflict by establishing the Nusra Front, before announcing a merger with the group in 2013 that was rejected by al Qaeda.

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Image caption The emergence of the self-styled Islamic State changed the dynamics of the war in Syria.

The Syrian government focused on military efforts against moderate opposition groups, which gave IS a margin of maneuver.

In June 2014, EI announced the formation of what it called a “caliphate” that encompassed parts of Syria and Iraq .

Defeating EI quickly became the priority of Western powers in Iraq and Syria.

This led the West to subordinate the peace process in Syria to an imperative policy of “The First” .

Copyright of the REUTERS image
Image caption Syria’s war has been particularly rampant with children, thousands of whom live in refugee camps.

In September 2014, the beginning of air strikes against IS positions in Syria showed that the West was willing to intervene directly to counter the radical organization, but not to protect civilians in areas controlled by the opposition and that they were attacked with Government barrel bombs.

That fueled a deep sense of betrayal within the Syrian opposition and conveyed that the priority was to achieve a military solution to one of the products of the conflict over the search for a peace agreement that would curb the war.

4- The Russian intervention

After a series of rebellious victories in early 2015, President Al Asad was forced to admit that the shortage of personnel had made it necessary to cede territory.

A banner with photos of Bashar al Asad, president of Syria, and Vladimir Putin, president of Russia
Copyright of the AFP image
Image caption Russia’s intervention in the Syrian conflict has moved the military balance in favor of Bashar al-Assad.

Russia calculated that the Syrian government needed support to guarantee its survival.

In September 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the deployment of Russian forces in Syria.

The intervention surprised the international community and immediately tipped the military balance in favor of the government .

Moscow declared that its intervention targeted terrorist groups such as EI and the Nusra Front, but it included more moderate groups, including some supported by the United States.

Russia has become the main arbiter in the international peace talks, leaving aside the United Nations and making the United States a minor player in the process.

The Russian intervention has also upped the ante for any form of Western intervention in the future, as this would provoke a real threat of direct combat with the Russian forces.

5- The recovery of Aleppo

The recapture of Aleppo, a state located in eastern Syria that had been under rebel control, by the government and the forces aligned in December 2016 has been, to date, one of President Asad’s most significant victories.

Copyright of the AP image
Image caption East Aleppo was one of the strongholds of the Syrian opposition, but was retaken by the government.

The loss of Aleppo seems to illustrate that the rebel hopes of overthrowing the Assad regime by military means ended.

However, the government also lacks the capacity to control the entire country , which means that victory must be seen in relative terms.

Internationally, the events in Aleppo cemented the role of Russia as one of the main actors in the Syrian conflict.

What happened also resulted in Turkey replacing the United States as the key interlocutor with Russia in the last days of the Obama administration.

After the United States and its Western allies yielded to the initiative, it now appears that the marginalization of the West in Syria could leave Russia and Iran with the position to negotiate with Turkey an eventual agreement to end the war.

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Rava Desk

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