Fractured but not forgotten: remembering the hopeful roots of the Syrian conflict

As the conflict in Syria enters an advanced stage, it is imperative to remember the roots of the Syrian crisis as we look to the next stage in the conflict. On November 10th, notable Idlib-based activist Raed Fares, Brookings fellow and former United States Department of State official Tamara Coffman Wittes, and writer and activist Ammar Abdulhamid engaged in conversation around the 2011 uprisings, the character of the anti-Assad opposition movements, and the country’s turn towards violence. They stressed the Assad government’s use of force against protesters as the defining moment in Syria’s turn towards chaos because it opened the door to radical actors who justified their extreme beliefs by claiming to protect communities. The panelists also spoke on the role of the international community’s intervention (or lack thereof) in the country. Such a multidimensional conflict demands policy responses on many fronts, but the speakers agreed that the Trump administration appears set to continue the Obama administration’s pursuit of a narrow counter-terrorism strategy in Syria. Such an approach has allowed other powers, notably Russia, to fill the void left by United States’ influence, and that trend is likely to continue in a post-ISIL Syria.

Looking Back

The events of the 2011 uprisings remain obscured in popular consciousness and official accounts. Raed Fares’ account served as a poignant yet hopeful reminder of the secular, civil roots of the Syrian uprisings. Mr. Fares continues to live in Idlib, where he still works as an activist – and where the Syrian government’s hold is tenuous. Fares and his network of activists represent the heart of the Syrian uprisings whose vision fragmented under the pressure of violence between the government and armed groups throughout the country. Having survived kidnappings and assassination attempts, Fares knows the danger that continues to permeate Syria. Yet he remains hopeful for his country’s future. Activists like him are caught between the government’s brutality and the violence of extremist groups, and face threats from both sides. Fares pointed out that the Assad family has long fostered anti-American sentiment as a matter of course in its educational programs and televised rhetoric, a legacy he thinks American intervention could have reversed. While the other panelists remained skeptical that more assertive American intervention would have removed Mr. Assad or ensured a peaceful renegotiation of the state’s relationship to its people, all agreed that the United States’ failure to act more decisively in Syria has exacerbated the conflict.

Tamara Cofman Wittes, a former State Department official and current fellow at Brookings, linked the global impact of Syria’s civil war to the fallout of the Bosnia crisis, which also demanded an international intervention to limit its impact. Today, we see the United States’ failure to pursue a better-defined Syria policy in the global migration crisis that has so strained Europe. Ammar Abdulhamid, a writer and activist, emphasized that the refugee crisis has become a central talking point in far-right politics in both the U.S. and Europe, and is a direct result of the escalation in the Syrian crisis. For Abdulhamid, the increase in anti-immigrant rhetoric, especially in fear of refugees, is a direct result of the U.S. failure to adopt a more sustainable Syria policy.

Looking Forward

The panelists agreed that the fragmentation of Syria is a direct result of the Syrian government’s use of force, and the enduring divisions indicate that the conflict is far from over. Cofman Wittes offered detailed thoughts on the likely outcomes in the wake of ISIL’s territorial defeat. While the Assad government is moving to consolidate its hold on the country, the panelists agreed that Mr. Assad is unlikely to rule over a unified territorial Syria. Even before 2011, the Assad government did not fully control large parts of the country in the east and north. Nonetheless, Syria may experience a “soft partition,” with pieces of the country falling under the influence of powerful domestic and foreign stakeholders. In particular, Cofman Wittes identified Russia, Turkey, Iran, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and the remnants of Syrian extremist groups as actors capable of extending their reach in a post-ISIL Syria. Iran and Russia have special incentive to continue pouring resources into Syria because both already have vested strategic interests in the country. The conflict has allowed both to entrench their presence in Syria, and neither is likely to give up the investments they have made there. President Assad will remain reliant on Iranian and Russian aid to stay afloat, but Tehran and Moscow stand to continue seeing substantial returns on their investment in Damascus. Syria was a recipient of Iranian largesse long before the 2011 uprisings, and Iran has little reason to sacrifice a foothold there. Russia, likewise, will retain a warm-water port in Tartus, a strategic asset the country has coveted for decades. The Assad government will also remain sympathetic to Russian goals in the short term, giving Moscow a chance to continue increasing its Middle East footprint.

It is more difficult to tell the degree of autonomy Syria’s Kurds can achieve, especially in the face to stiff Turkish objections. Civil society activists in Syria have an even more uncertain future. Mr. Assad’s treatment of them before and during the conflict has not been kind, and increased government control over Syria will only expand his ability to target activists as well as armed insurgents. Yet the panelists were careful to point out that the central government needs time to rebuild its presence outside the territory it already controls. As such, civil society groups will have opportunities to exploit the central government’s weakness. The creative will find chances to continue pushing the country towards inclusive governance, and Coffman Wittes stressed that the international community can also use the ambiguities of the reconstruction period to support these groups in their work. They will have a careful balancing act to perform, but hope certainly remains alive for activists inside Syria.

-Nicholas Norberg, JMEPP Staff Writer

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