The day was March 15 when a group of young Syrians, probably fascinated and stirred by their North African neighbours’ courage, took to the streets of Daraa the “cradle of Syria’s uprising”, which eventually spread to the cities of Banias, Homs, and Damascus. Chanting “God, Syria and freedom only”, they protested against the dire economic situation, the regime’s brutality as well as state corruption and military apparatus. Nevertheless, their protests soon turned into a nightmare, one that no observer would ever want to tell. The more the manifestations spread across Syria, the harsher the government’s response increased. In a circuit of violence, state repression called protests, protests called repression. In a few months, what initially started as a mobilization movement turned into a civil war, and little was left of the open call for freedom and rights of the Syrian uprising. The rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State was a game-changer. The terrorist group exploited the Syrian chaos and divisions to establish a transnational Caliphate across Syria and Iraq, calling for what they decided would be the home for all Muslims in the world. The terrorists’ intention had little to do with the legitimate call for democracy of the young boys and girls rallying months prior in Syria’s streets.
Another game-changer which has definitively obscured any residue of the 2011 revolt instances has been the beginning of the Russian military campaign in Assad’s defence in September 2015. The Russian military intervention was furthermore fundamental in destroying the Islamic State: this is an unquestionable fact. The Institute for the Study of War reports evidence that Russia’s planes could target deep into opposition-held areas – more than the US-led coalition – and were crucial in the liberation of major cities like Aleppo. In September 2015, prior to the Russian military launching its first raid on the Islamic State’s positions from their military base in Hmeimim in the Latakia region, terrorists controlled the vast majority of central and northern-eastern Syrian territory (without counting neighbouring Iraq). A few months into Moscow’s military campaign, Damascus had already reconquered about 40% of the lands they had lost to the rebels. The Russian intervention transformed the Syrian conflict into an international one. No one is able to tell if without Moscow’s intervention this situation would have happened, but it must be acknowledged that its involvement definitely played a part in this end-result. Moscow has dragged two primary partners into the Syrian crisis: Iran and Turkey. Both have different agendas but share a common goal: to have a say in Syria’s crisis. Iran’s presence in the region caught Israel’s attention; Turkey’s presence caught Kurdish attention, and so on and so forth. From Daraa’s streets to the stage of international politics, the gap was short. Nevertheless, this is by far not the most critical aspect of the conflict to consider as it is not new that the Middle East revolts have become conflicts of global dominion.
The most relevant consequence of Russia’s intervention was Assad’s salvation. Again, one cannot say that if Moscow had not intervened, the Assad regime would have fallen victim to the rebels, and now Syria would be ruled by a wise and far-sighted leader. However, it is certain that Assad remained in power thanks to the military, political, and diplomatic protection provided by the Kremlin. For how obvious it may sound, this is the aspect that encapsulates the question – rather than the answer – about Syria’s future. Even as Moscow proved able to save Assad’s regime, it will never be able to give it the popular legitimacy it needs to rule the country. Assad may have won the war, but he did not win the most important challenge: that of convincing the Syrians that he is the best candidate to rule them. Ten years after the war began, the Syrian population is devastated. The economy is broken; almost a quarter of the Syrian population fled to neighbouring countries and Europe; many areas including Idlib remain volatile; the social fabric is ripped apart, and reintegration of refugees and detainees into society will be one of the bitterest challenges of the coming years. The political process is in a deadlock and the reconstruction of the destroyed areas and infrastructures requires foreign investments that are bound to political considerations including who would be willing to rebuild Assad’s Syria. It is no wonder that new anti-government demonstrations sparked in the Summer of 2020, which ended in beatings and arrests.
“Everything has changed so that nothing changed”, it seems. There is an urgent question that the international community needs to ask Russia: what is next? Now that Moscow has managed to almost unravel every residue of the regime supporters, what needs to be done to heal Syria’s deep wounds, those that had led thousands of young people to take to the streets of Daraa? Moscow has a huge advantage, one that no other actor involved in the Syrian crisis enjoys: it has the Assad regime’s confidence. A historical trust, which was born about sixty years prior to 2015, and has roots in a politico-economic project that brought Moscow to be Syria’s most enduring political ally.
There is currently three main spheres Moscow needs to work on, and the international community, starting from Europe, should monitor closely. The first is a political arrangement. While Assad’s full control of the country has been a strong point for the Russians so far, it is now clear to Moscow that something should be done to put “gentle pressure” on him to make some concessions. One idea would be to work for a “compromise political transition”, where Assad does not renounce to his role but gives political and economic concessions to the Syrian-opposition. Astana is not the only table where to try to negotiate this goal: it has a limited scope, and we should not have “too high expectations on what it could achieve”. The second is the return of refugees. The aim here is to guarantee safe conditions for returning refugees to settle back in their country: this is an essential condition for the country’s recovery. On this matter, Brussels and many European governments, which suffered the consequences of the Syrian diaspora, are in the condition of asking for urgent, tangible progress on the ground to Moscow, namely the implementation of the UNHCR regulations for refugee returns. The third is the reconstruction, in which the weaknesses of Russia’s Syria policy emerge most clearly. The Kremlin has limited interest to engage in the reconstruction business; the Russians have no means to improve their economic substitutes to Damascus. If the Russians are unable to rebuild, they should then evaluate whom they want to empower. As the Europeans subordinate their engagement to more significant concessions from Damascus (sanctions, political progress, refugee issue), Russia may be in the position of at least attempting to guarantee those concessions.
In this effort to push Moscow to use its leverage on Damascus, the EU (better “European countries”, which enjoy better relations with Moscow than Brussels does lately) may have a role to play. And it is also a path that the Russians should consider. If they do not create the conditions in practice to boost dialogue with Europe, the Russians may risk falling victim to the “Russian Pax” that they have created. This painful situation would be one where Syria falls victim to the interferences of countries such as Turkey, Iran, the Gulf monarchies, Israel and China, and is ruled by a dictator who enjoys no European and international support.