Syria is in ruins. Divided up into devastated fiefdoms ruled by warring armies, the country has become a battleground for the major players vying for influence in the Middle East, among them Russia and the US, Isis and Hezbollah, Iran and the Gulf States. While at one level a proxy war for those who would use Syria to further their own interests, Syria's civil war has been nothing short of a catastrophe for its people.
Assad & the Alawites
One of the few things that all sides opposing the Syrian government can agree on is that President Bashar Al Assad must go. If only it were that simple. In his community, and among some secular-minded Syrians, Assad is a hero, seen as the last bulwark against Islamic extremism in the country. As an Alawite, he is seen as the protector of his community, a people who represent around 11% of Syria's population and whose homeland is in the country's west. The Assad family, and therefore the Alawites, have held power in Syria since the 1970s, and the Alawites fear that Assad's removal would put the entire community at risk of revenge and sectarian violence. For those opposed to the Assad regime, however, he remains the greatest obstacle to peace, a leader with blood on his hands and whose authoritarian rule and bloody response to calls for democracy mean that he can never be part of postwar Syria. Until a way can be found around this impasse over Assad's future role, peace will remain a distant dream.
Of all the players in Syria's tragic civil war, it is Isis and its extremist ideology that have come to symbolise the brutality of the conflict. Since 2014, the provincial Syrian city of Raqqa has been the capital of the self-declared caliphate and a base from which Isis has extended its control of vast swaths of Syria – at the peak of its powers, it controlled nearly half of the country's territory, and an estimated 10 million civilians lived under its rule in Syria and Iraq. Campaigns to drive Isis from its strongholds continue at the time of writing, and the group was estimated in 2017 to have lost around 60% of the territory it formerly controlled. While the group's territory does appear to be shrinking, the polarising impact of Isis' presence has helped to further sideline those who call for a secular Syria and has deepened the fears of minority communities about their future in any postwar outcomes.
Russia, the US & the Rest
It is difficult for any of the foreign powers operating in Syria to complain about international meddling in the Syrian conflict – they're all at it. The US has long been a player by backing the largely secular Free Syrian Army, while Russia has, since 2015, provided critical military backing for the Syrian government and has possibly saved it in the process. Iran and Hezbollah, too, have seen opportunities to increase their regional influence by siding with the Syrian government, even as the oil-rich Arab Gulf States have sought to combat Iranian meddling by lavishing funds across all manner of rebel groups, including, according to some reports, Al Qaeda–backed Al Nusra Front. Wary of growing Kurdish influence in northern Syria, Turkey, too, has become a major player, maintaining a delicate balancing act by opposing both Isis and those best placed to remove it. The result is a complex entangling of geopolitical rivalries that has only served to escalate the conflict and make worse the lives of ordinary Syrians.
Paths to Peace
Peace in Syria can at times seem like an impossible dream, such is the level of division – between those who support Assad and those who want him tried for war crimes, between those fighting for an Islamic Syria and those who believe in a secular future – in the country. Add to this the apocalyptic levels of human misery and the physical devastation of cities and infrastructure, and Syria's future looks bleak indeed. For a peaceful Syria to emerge from the morass, a united international community is a necessity. Despite the best efforts of UN-appointed mediators, such unity is a long way off, and the numerous UN-backed peace conferences that have been held have, not surprisingly, come to nothing. Another prerequisite for peace would seem to be some unity of vision among Syrians themselves as to what postwar Syria will look like. That, too, appears unlikely without major concessions by all sides. The only consolation for Syrians is that, as difficult as such prospects may be to realise, the dangers of not doing so are even more difficult to contemplate. Such tenuous shreds of positive thinking are as close as Syria comes to hope in the present climate.