In Western political and diplomatic circles the received idea these days is that war in Syria has reached its end and that what one should now focus on is reconstruction.
However, like all other received ideas this one, too, is as full of holes and Swiss cheese.
The first hole is that what we have witnessed in Syria over the past seven years was not a war in any classical sense of the term. What we saw was several wars woven into each other in the context of a humanitarian disaster sharpened by rivalry among a dozen cynical powers in pursuit of contradictory goals.
In that sense, far from being at the end of anything in Syria, we may be at the beginning of a new phase in this historic tragedy.
The second hole is that even if we focus on any of the parallel wars in Syria we would still find it hard to claim that we have reached the end.
To be sure, the Assad regime has been cut down in size, practically limited to a pocket of territory. However, it is still strong enough not to raise its hands in surrender.
As for the so-called ISIS or Daesh, its “caliphate” has seen its territory reduced from almost 4000 square miles to just over 2,700 square miles.
The non-Daesh Syrian armed opposition groups have also suffered major setbacks and are now cantoned in part of the Idlib province plus an archipelago of tiny possessions dotting the Syrian surface. As for Syrian Kurds, having played a complicated game through contradictory alliances, they seem likely to end up with almost nothing but deep chagrin.
In a broader context Russia, too, has been forced to face the limits of its power.
It may have secured a foothold on the Mediterranean but is fully conscious of the difficulty of protecting it against future turmoil.
In the forthcoming Russian presidential elections, we may hear President Vladimir Putin, once again a candidate for his own succession, claim, or at least hint at, some kind of victory in Syria. But, being an intelligent leader, he surely knows that no war is ever won until one side admits defeat.
Turkey is also discovering the limits of its ability to score points in Syria. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s jingoistic dash into Syrian territory may remain popular enough in Turkey for a few more months to enable him to bring forward the date of the historic elections he plans to hold and make sure he emerges victorious. But what happens after that is far from certain, except that getting involved in Syria isn’t going to be as low-cost as Erdogan pretends.
Iran’s situation is even more pitiful
Having spent vast sums of money and lost more men, including over 400 senior officers, in this meaningless adventure, the mullahs had hoped to end up with a corridor to the Mediterranean with a contiguous passage through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. It is now clear that they won’t get that.
Whatever presence they may build inside Syria close to Lebanon will be vulnerable to Israeli air attacks which Iran, having no air force of its own, won’t be able to counter. The Lebanese, Afghan and Pakistani mercenaries that Iran has assembled close to the Lebanese border in Syria could end up as fish in a barrel.
Israel which has just started to dip a toe in this witches’ brew may well be happy to see Syria removed as a credible threat for the foreseeable future. However, Syria under the Assad clan was never an active danger for Israel while Syria as a “non-governed territory” and a patchwork of uncontrollable groups may well become a nuisance if not an existential threat.
The Assad regime has been cut down in size, practically limited to a pocket of territory. However, it is still strong enough not to raise its hands in surrender.Amir Taheri
The trouble is that in this many-sided war no side is yet ready to raise the white flag. By just saying “no” all sides stay in the game, deadly though it is.
The Syrian situation, a tragedy that starts as a civil war and then morphs into a prolonged and multifaceted jumble of conflicts, isn’t unique. We have had similar situations in Somalia, Congo-Kinshasa and, in a sense, even Afghanistan for decades.
In all such situations, the received idea is that we are almost there, there meaning an end of conflict, but never quite reaching it. The trouble is that in such situations those involved end up getting used to a new status quo that, although not delivering what they hoped for, isn’t too costly to require dramatic withdrawal. A low intensity war could go on and on, even for ever if necessary.
So, is there an alternative to the emerging status quo?
The theoretical answer is: yes.
But to shape an alternative all sides must first admit that the “war” isn’t over and that none of them is likely to score a clear-cut victory. Even if, in a fantasy world, the whole of Syria was to be presented to any of the protagonists on a platter, none would be able to hold it together let alone benefit from it.
The question is no longer: who dances with Humpty-Dumpty? The question is: How to put this Humpty-Dumpty together again?
Nothing short of a serious international effort could recreate an entity that has ceased to exist as a nation-state. And such an effort may be possible on the basis of full inclusion of all the protagonists, used to a game of exclusion as they all are.
Putin’s idea of “de-escalation zones” may be a good start provided it is linked to the Geneva Accords and the creation of an international supervisory mechanism, not to say mandate, for a transition period aimed at paving the way for massive reconstruction financed by the global community.
Similar formula produced positive results in other places such as Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, albeit on a much smaller scale and in far less complicated situations.
It is, of course, far from certain that such a formula would find support among the protagonists. But there is a glimmer of hope in the fact that, tired of an endless adventurer, almost all protagonists are beginning to look for a way out of this maze of waywardness.
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.