The Syrian Civil War’s Never-Ending Endgame

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A poster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that reads “From victorious Syria, may safety accompany you” in Arabic is displayed on the border between Lebanon and Syria, July 20, 2018 (AP photo by Hassan Ammar).

The Syrian civil war that has decimated the country for more than a decade, provoking a regional humanitarian crisis and drawing in actors ranging from the United States to Russia, has been drawing inexorably to a conclusion for years now. President Bashar al-Assad, with the backing of Iran and Russia, has emerged militarily victorious from the conflict, which began after his government violently repressed civilian protests in 2011. The armed insurgency that followed soon morphed into a regional and global proxy war that, at the height of the fighting, saw radical Islamist groups, including the Islamic State, seize control over vast swathes of the country. They subsequently lost almost all the territory they controlled in the face of sustained counteroffensives by pro-government forces as well as a U.S.-led coalition of Western militaries.

Though the fighting has waned in the past few years, parts of the country—such as the northwestern Idlib region—remain outside of government control. In early 2020, the Syrian army’s Russian-backed campaign to retake Idlib from the last remaining armed opposition groups concentrated there resulted in clashes with Turkish forces deployed to protect Ankara’s client militias. The skirmishes were a reminder that the conflict, though winding down, could still flare back up and escalate. The situation in the northeast also remains volatile following the removal of U.S. forces from the border with Turkey, with Turkish, Syrian and Russian forces all now deployed in the region, alongside proxies and Syrian Kurdish militias.

The return to high-intensity fighting in Idlib in 2020 created yet another humanitarian crisis, sending waves of refugees toward the Turkish border and adding to the war’s already staggering humanitarian cost. The estimated death toll is 400,000 people, but it could actually be much higher. And at various points in the conflict, more than half of the country’s population was displaced. The United Nations Refugee Agency estimates that 5.6 million people have fled Syria since the fighting started, putting a significant strain on neighboring countries as well as Europe. Even as the conflict winds down, it is unclear when or if they will be able to return.

Once the war finally comes to an end, Assad will still face the challenge of rebuilding the country, including areas where he allegedly deployed chemical weapons against his own citizens. The question of who will foot the bill remains an open one. The U.S. and European countries are loath to work with Assad, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine makes it unlikely the U.S. and its Western partners will cooperate with Moscow either. And Moscow is unlikely to take on the costs of reconstruction, which the United Nations has estimated at $250 billion. Former U.S. President Donald Trump was eager to distance the U.S. from the situation in Syria, but President Joe Biden has yet to articulate his approach to a conflict whose endpoint seems, as ever, vaguely visible on the horizon, but whose destructive impact is clear and present.

WPR has covered the Syrian civil war in detail and continues to examine key questions about what will happen next. Can Russia force the Assad regime to make key institutional reforms to satisfy Western nations’ conditions for helping to fund Syria’s reconstruction? What role will Iran and the militias it supports continue to play in the country? And how will the Biden administration approach a conflict that no longer commands attention in the U.S.? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

Our Most Recent Coverage

For the American Public, Syria Has Become the ‘Forgotten War’

Many Americans were reminded in late August that the United States remains actively engaged in military combat. But this conflict is not in Afghanistan, where the U.S. withdrew its forces last August. Nor is it in Ukraine, where President Joe Biden has gone out of his way to avoid direct military involvement. It’s in Syria.

Outside Powers and Coalitions

Syria is beginning to fall off the international agenda. Though Russia and Turkey remain actively engaged, interest is waning among other actors, including the United States—a dramatic change from earlier stages of the conflict, when Syria served as a proxy battlefield for local and global powers alike. Moscow, at least, does not appear interested in surrendering its influence, though it is unclear just how much leverage the Kremlin has over Assad. Whether or not the Biden administration will reengage to shape the conflict’s end game, and to what extent, remains an open question.

The Civil War & Domestic Politics

Having regained control over much of the country’s inhabited regions, Assad is now faced with the task of rebuilding Syria. But he does not have the money to do it, and the powers that do—the United States and Europe—say they are unwilling to hand over any funds without regime change. Assad, meanwhile, has said he is not even willing to consider institutional reforms that might satisfy some of his critics. That could spell a cycle of domestic crises ahead for Syria and its citizens.

The Humanitarian Crisis

Despite waning international interest, the humanitarian crisis sparked by the Syrian civil war is far from over. The U.N. estimates that 13.1 million people are in need of assistance—a number that could continue to rise if the fighting in Idlib is not brought to an end. And the humanitarian crisis will persist if Syria does not find the resources to begin rebuilding.

The Fight Against the Islamic State

Though the Islamic State no longer retains control over any territory in Syria and lost its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as well as his successor, it has not been eradicated as a movement. It still retains a significant number of fighters and sympathizers who could pivot to insurgency and terror attacks, whether in Syria or elsewhere. That may prove more difficult to counter than the group’s previous iterations.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in July 2019 and is regularly updated.

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