After seven years of carnage, at the cost of half a million lives, the violence in Syria is not dwindling but multiplying. The mighty pursue power, territory and resources, while civilians pay in blood. The United Nations warns of unprecedented levels of suffering in a country that has already witnessed so many crimes and such desperation. Its calls for a ceasefire are ignored.
The disintegration of ISIS self-proclaimed caliphate has thrown these overlapping wars into sharper relief. The ISIS threat is not over, despite high-profile captures. Its fighters will do their best to continue their butchery in the region and further afield. But as the focus shifts, other conflicts are enmeshing and intensifying, as this week has shown. On Thursday alone, more than 100 pro-regime fighters were killed by American forces repelling an assault on a US-controlled base in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor – while in eastern Ghouta, which has already suffered so much at the hands of Bashar al-Assad, 59 civilians, including 15 children, died on the same day.
A political solution to the original crisis is more distant than ever, with the failure not only of the UN-sponsored Geneva talks but of Russia’s overconfident attempts to outflank that process and push through a deal at Sochi last month. Assad has accelerated his bloody drive for military victory; 400,000 are under siege in eastern Ghouta. Regime granted the UN just over a quarter of its requests for access to opposition areas in 2017; not one has been approved this year. But though the rebels have lost, Assad has not yet won.
Russia has discovered that it is easier to bomb a country than bring peace. It wants a strategic hub in the region and control of gas and oil resources; but it does not want an indefinite drain on its military. The differences and mutual suspicion between Assad’s patrons are increasingly obvious; Iran is happy to see a weak state and the extension of its own control across ever more territory, preferably with reduced Russian influence.
Meanwhile, YPG, which hoped its contribution to the battle against ISIS would mean increased support from the west for their long-term aspirations, as well as the defence of newly taken territory, are under assault from Turkey, determined to curb their ambitions.
The US wants to prevent the re-emergence of ISIS or a similar group, and hunt down remaining fighters, stabilise territory, reassert its role in the region against Russia’s increased weight and counter Iran’s growing power, and reassure its allies Saudi Arabia and Israel. These complex interests are in the hands of a chaotic and unpredictable administration. Even allies question whether the US really knows what it wants, while at home critics warn of mission creep. The pledge to keep US forces on the ground for the foreseeable future risks not only further conflict with pro-Assad forces but also Turkey, given US reliance on the YPG-dominated Syrian Defence Forces.
As the dangers grow, waves of Syrians flee again. The regime’s punishing attacks on rebel-held Idlib province have displaced at least 300,000 people since December. Around a million of Idlib’s inhabitants fled there from other areas, in some cases by forced arrangement with the regime when rebel groups elsewhere surrendered; yet the regime seeks to use the heavy presence of jihadi forces to tar them all.
In all, half the country’s population has been displaced: six million have fled abroad. But indifference and outright hostility are subsuming the anguish that once greeted their trauma and desperation. Last year, more countries kept their borders closed or sent refugees back. This week, international charities warned of the risk that hundreds of thousands could be forced to return amid anti-refugee sentiment and the mistaken belief that the war is winding down.
Syria’s neighbours have been generous hosts, in stark contrast to richer nations, which have resettled less than 3% of vulnerable refugees, the charities say. It is alarming but not surprising if they prove unwilling to continue without adequate support. The staggering human toll in Syria highlights the urgent need for a decent, humane international response.