The Near East’s soon forgotten war

A decade of disaster.

Improvised artillery found after the Battle of Aleppo

Syria’s civil war began in 2011 after popular demonstrations against state authoritarianism, corruption, and repression turned violent following an intense government crackdown.

Today, the country stands in abject ruin. Today, Syria is almost forgotten.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the escalating civil war in Libya have pushed Syria out of the limelight.

Now, it seems, actions in Syria will come to determine events elsewhere, particularly in war-torn Libya.

But where does Syria stand?

The country has suffered roughly 500,000 deaths and an exodus of some five million people from its soil since the war’s initiation.

After the war’s sharp escalation in 2012, it seemed as though the government of Bashar al-Assad might lose. The government was pushed to the brink by the Syrian opposition, a hodgepodge group of self-proclaimed reformers and democrats, as well as the Islamic State, which saw its territorial demise in early 2019.

The situation changed drastically and dramatically when, in late 2015, the Russian government began its open military intervention in Syria.

Over the next few years, the Assad government slowly but surely battled its way to victory in much of Syria.

These campaigns were brutal and unforgiving. Assad and his supporters in Tehran and Moscow referred to the opposition as “terrorists”. On the battlefield, they were generally treated as such.

The battle for Aleppo, once the largest city in Syria, was won by the Syrian military in late 2016. The indiscriminate brutality of that battle, combined with its geopolitically-pivotal nature, led many observers to call it “Syria’s Stalingrad”, after the infamous battle of the Second World War.

After Aleppo, the opposition armies were pushed into various corners and pockets of the country. One by one, bit by bit, each pocket was surrounded and defeated by the Syrian military.

The original opposition, or what is left of it, now remains in northern Syria in the Turkish-occupied zones, or in the northwestern Idlib governorate. A small pocket also lies around the al-Tanf border crossing with Iraq, which is currently occupied by the US.

Much of the Idlib pocket is actually controlled by the group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a Sunni Islamist group dedicated to toppling Assad, but maintains hostile relations with “fellow rebels” in the country. The group’s existence and degree of control are an unfortunate anecdote for the war’s cultural and religious aspects.

In early 2020, after months of waiting, the Syrian military attempted to break the opposition’s last formal hold in Syria. Weeks of fighting saw the opposition pushed back further and further towards the city of Idlib, until a Turkish military intervention put the Syrian military on a path of retreat.

Since then, various ceasefires have been signed and broken. Shelling and clashes continue on the de facto borders of the Idlib pocket.

But there is no end in sight.

I once believed the war would end by 2020. I remember thinking, in 2017, 2018, and 2019, that Assad’s forces would soon conquer the remaining territories of Syria, that the opposition would surrender in the north as they did in so many other places, and that the SDF would fold to an overwhelming Syrian military after losing its backing from the US.

I was wrong.

There is simply too much invested from every party involved for this war to end so soon. That is the catastrophic reality for the millions of Syrian people who yearn to see an end to this war.

Turkey cannot let the opposition lose. Similarly, Iran and Russia cannot let Assad fold to the demands of the opposition.

What began in 2011 as a theatre of the Arab Spring has turned into a bloodbath of geopolitical interests and ideological terrorism.

The “secular” and “moderate” government of Assad has exhibited severe disdain for its people, rigid and uncompromising totalitarianism, and greed and corruption on an abhorrent level.

At the same time, the “democratic” and “reformist” opposition has involved itself with Islamic terrorists, used civilians as human shields, and engaged in highly criminal activities in their pursuit of power.

There are no “good guys” and “bad guys” in Syria’s war.

What I fear now, however, is that the war will be forgotten.

As with Yemen’s civil war, which was never even remembered in the first place, Syria will be banished to the fate of anecdotal history.

The war will be known as a part of the greater ideological, religious, and cultural war that has raged in the Near East for a very long time.

Individuals will be reduced to caricatures. Ideas will be summarized as meaningless quotes and sayings.

As the civil war in North Yemen is known as just a smaller part of the Arab Cold War of the 20th century, the civil war in Syria will be remembered as part of the Near East’s whole internal struggle.

Is that so bad? Perhaps not. For the people of Syria, maybe so.

For years this war was “all the rage” in international media. The European migrant crisis and the 2016 US presidential election saw intense scrutiny being placed on Syria. Terrorist attacks by the Islamic State in Europe saw even more.

Now, with ISIS reduced to a fraction of its former self, and with the migrant crisis wearing down, the “international community” has found itself focused on other things.

Syria’s war has become forgotten. It is up to all of us to know it for what it was, what it is now, and what it will become.

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