Militarily, the situation is frozen, the time of the great offensives over. Politically there is a crippling stalemate, the civilian population is suffering. There is silence in the grave in Syria. After ten years of war, dictator Bashar al-Assad has largely prevailed with the help of Russia and Iran. Its soldiers rule two thirds of the national territory, hardly a region was spared from the fighting, the country lies in ruins.
The last refuge of the anti-Assad militias, who once fought bitterly against the army, is the area around the city of Idlib in the northwest. In the almost hermetically sealed area, radical Islamist rebels are in charge, the influence of moderate forces is minimal. Assad’s troops are ready to storm the last rebel stronghold.
But that does not happen, at least for the time being. Turkey has military bases with 15,000 men in Idlib, Russia, which sits at the negotiating table with Ankara and is the most important ally of the Syrian government, is holding Assad back.
The dictator in Damascus has only limited capacity to act; the fate of his country will continue to be decided from outside, especially in Moscow. Russia controls the airspace over Idlib, fighter jets and warships repeatedly attack civilian targets such as hospitals, schools and markets.
In Idlib, over three million people, many of them refugees, are living their lives under catastrophic conditions. There are already 3.5 million Syrians in Turkey. Ankara fears another onslaught on its territory should the last rebel bastion fall into the hands of Assad.
In the north, Turkish soldiers and Arab allies have locked themselves in a “security corridor”. Ankara also fears a strengthening of the Kurdish YPG on the southern border. Turkey has been embroiled in a bloody conflict with the PKK on its own territory for decades and wants to prevent further destabilization. The Kurdish self-government forces in Syria are considered terrorists here.
Further south, the Syrian Democratic Forces, SDF, control around a quarter of the country. These are militias of the Kurdish YPG, Arab-Muslim and Arab-Christian units that drove the IS there. The terrorist militia itself has not been completely defeated; it regularly carries out attacks on the border with Iraq.
As Assad’s opponent, the USA has largely withdrawn from the conflict region and no longer plays a decisive role. There is a base in Tanf, from where rebels receive military advice and the situation is monitored.
80 percent live in poverty
The various forces share control over a land that is on the ground. It is estimated that 400,000 people have lost their lives in the past ten years. 5.6 million have fled abroad, 6.7 million displaced people are still in Syria, they are divided into 1,000 camps. About 100,000 prisoners were tortured to death, according to information from the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. More than 80 percent live in poverty.
Young people in particular suffer from the consequences of the war. Almost one in two of the 18 to 25 year olds has lost a family member or friend, twelve percent were injured in the war. Clearing duds and mines from the country will take generations.
Russia wants to bring in the harvest
In the short term, the foreign powers involved – Russia, Turkey, Iran and the USA – have their hands full dealing with the Corona crisis. No decisive advances are to be expected now. The vague hopes that peace talks will lead to success have been battered time and again in the past. The chances of this are not good in the near future either.
What is clear is that Russia wants some of the many billions of euros that the Syrian military operation cost back. Moscow is trying to win the Europeans over to rebuild the country. But the West will hardly get involved as long as Assad remains in office. The dictator is expected to run for elections in the summer, but these will neither be free nor fair. Russia can then try to maintain control of the country and withdraw its military with a supposedly democratically legitimized man. Tehran will remain in Syria with pro-Iranian militias in order to secure its influence here. And Turkey has its hands full to keep the Kurds in check.
Nevertheless, hope is alive, at least a little: The EU is planning to raise money for the civilian population and the Syrian refugees in the region with a donor conference on March 29th and 30th.