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Who is set to win the Syrian civil war?

The ceasefire is largely holding. So what happens next?

The Syrian civil war is without doubt the worst and most brutal conflict in the world, a generational war without real historical comparisons.

The most recent efforts to bring about a ceasefire, in talks between Turkey, Russia, Iran and the Assad regime at the end of last year, did provide some respite from the fighting in some areas. But the regime’s forces have continued to attack armed rebels around Damascus and particularly in Wadi Barada.

The UN mediator for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, hopes to convene further peace talks in Geneva on 8 February but for now the conflict continues.

On the ground, a classic hereditary tyranny that survives only through force and external contrivance is fighting disparate militias across the country for control of the state. World and regional powers fight with and against it, for reasons of their own. At the same time, much of the actual fighting is local: one village or businessman against another.

The armed opposition is flagging. From Islamic State (IS) to Jabhat an-Nusra, Jaysh al-Islam (the Army of Islam) to Ahrar ash-Sham, extreme religious conservative militias – many of them led by veterans of the Jihadist insurgency against the United States in Iraq – have long since taken over as the main bulk of the rebel forces.

The original Syrian uprising was libertarian, anti-hierarchical, and revolutionary in character – as most popular movements are – but these sentiments were either lost in the general dirt and blood of civil war, hindered by external support for Jihadist forces, or caved in under the extreme brutality of the regime. A significant constituency that believes in the first principles of the uprising survives in the exiled diaspora but its numbers fighting on the ground are now few and marginal.

The existing Sunni Arab armed opposition, regardless of ideology, generally has little to no understanding of the parallel but different fight of the Kurdish militias led by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the North and even less sympathy for their cause. In some cases they are openly contemptuous of historical Kurdish grievances and current Kurdish ambitions and cling like the regime to a statist insistence on the integrity of Syria’s existing borders.

The Kurdish militias while they despise the regime do not trust the main of the Arab opposition and have largely refused to work with them on the wider project of overthrowing it, choosing instead to consolidate their gains in the North.

Outside of the Kurdish enclaves, the conflict today is really a series of set-piece sieges around the remaining opposition strongholds (and a couple of rebel sieges of regime outposts) punctuated by village to village and hamlet to hamlet skirmishes.

Almost all of the armed opposition has become detached from the civilian population and this year the reality of its fight as being over territory and to establish or protect lucrative looting and smuggling businesses will become clearer.

Of the major sieges, it is those around Damascus that will draw the most attention in the early part of the year. The rebel positions in Yarmouk and Hajar al-Aswad are likely to be forced into an ignominious surrender by regime forces in the next few months.

The crown of the opposition’s strongholds near the capital, in the Eastern Ghouta oasis, is also likely to fall to regime forces within the year. The Syrian army has already retaken chunks of rebel-held Eastern Ghouta and took advantage of the 30 December ceasefire to mass for a push on rebel positions around the enclave.

“With Aleppo city retaken in its entirety, the regime can afford to focus manpower on the area, which has been severely weakened anyway by siege conditions and rebel infighting,” Aymen Jawad al-Tamimi, one of the few analysts with knowledge of the Jihadist opposition and the current balance of forces within Syria, tells me.

Using its superior diplomatic position and fire superiority, the regime is set to re-take the last anti-government bastion around the Syrian capital.

The regime’s capture of Aleppo late last year was a significant victory which was a long time coming. The successes that the armed Syrian opposition enjoyed from late 2011-15, and that allowed them to take Aleppo’s centre, were dependent on critical Turkish support and reinforcement through the open Turkish border.

During 2016 Turkey, recognising that the regime wasn’t going to be overthrown without massive US intervention, reduced the scope of its support, sealed the border, and moved towards diplomatic normalisation with Russia.

The armed opposition in the area has predictably fallen apart and never had much hope of holding east Aleppo. What fighting forces remain are open Turkish proxies working to keep IS away from the Turkish border and fighting Syrian Kurdish forces, not overthrowing the regime.

The armed opposition is not entirely spent however. In the city of Idlib, rebel forces remain strong and still control almost all of the surrounding province.

The area is dominated by Jabhat an-Nusra, commonly referred to as the al-Qaeda franchise in Syria, which expelled the secular Syrian Revolutionaries Front from Idlib in 2014. As the Century Foundation’s Sam Heller has documented, Ahrar ash-Sham are also influential there alongside a coalition of other extremist militias.

“I see Idlib as more likely to remain a rebel bastion over the next year, with strong supply lines still coming in through Turkey, and the regime still needing to clear out the north Hama and Latakia fronts, which have proven to be a nuisance,” Tamimi says.

In the south of the country, the US and Jordan have set up their own proxy forces to work with the armed opposition, but their efforts have proved non-committal and ineffective. The US/Jordanian force is currently trying to dislodge IS forces in the city of Deraa, but to little effect.

In Homs the regime has lost ground to IS of late but its forces there pose no serious threat to the regime and the same applies vice versa. Its stronghold in al-Bab is besieged by Turkish proxies and beset by Russian and Turkish air strikes.

Understanding the war in Syria in 2017 will necessitate discarding the propaganda. The Assad regime is not merely defending the country from fanatical outlaws, although there are plenty of them, and neither is the armed opposition only an expression of resistance to state tyranny, which is similarly real. The US and Europe are not supporting democratic forces and Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime are no more fighting “terror” in Syria than the US was in Iraq.

Contrary to claims that the world is ignoring the conflict, there has been constant intervention by regional and world powers. The US and UK have intervened consistently on the side of the armed opposition since the onset of the war and the effect was mostly to perpetuate the conflict as a bloody stalemate.

Since October 2015 Russian intervention – alongside Iranian incursions – has proved critical in shifting the fight in the regime’s favour by the use of brute force and violence. The recent rapprochement between Russia and Turkey is an ill omen for Kurdish aspirations for autonomy in the North.

No one can seriously argue that the problem in Syria is insufficient foreign intervention. Ascribing the brutality of the war to a lack of external involvement may be a convenient way for the usual suspects to push for future aggressive foreign policy but it has no basis in the historical record.

With Russia and Iran’s assistance the regime is winning. Saudi Arabia is focused on Yemen and without substantial Turkish support and Saudi funding the armed opposition is already falling apart. The chances of a great revival are slim.

But the rebels still have Idlib. And even with Damascus and its suburbs fully under its control the regime must contend with a committed insurgency and its own fundamental illegitimacy. So the war goes on.

Tom Stevenson is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul

Gerald Wiener
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From the Kindertransport to Dolly the Sheep: a New Statesman subscriber's story

Gerald Wiener's life has now been turned into a biography. 

In 1997, Gerald Wiener, an animal geneticist, gathered with a group of friends in Edinburgh to celebrate the cloning of Dolly the sheep by one of his former colleagues. He was a respected scientist, who had contributed to the developments in research which led to this ground-breaking development – and a New Statesman reader.

It could have been very different. Gerald was born Horst, on 25 April 1926, to a German Jewish family. Raised in Berlin by his mother, Luise, he grew up under the shadow of the Nazi regime. He was forced out of his school, and left increasingly alone as friends and family fled to the United States and Britain. After Kristallnacht, when Nazis looted and vandalised Jewish-owned businesses, his mother was desperate for her son to escape. She managed to get him included in the last-ditch organised rescue of German Jewish children, which became known as the Kindertransport. At twelve, Wiener arrived in the UK, alone.

For many years, Wiener did not talk much about his past in Germany. Instead, he embraced a new life as a British schoolboy, and later travelled the world as a scientist. But when he met his second wife, the teacher and writer Margaret Dunlop, she began noting down some of his stories. Eventually she encouraged him to share so many details it has become a book: Goodbye Berlin: the biography of Gerald Wiener.

“I was moved by some of the stories, like his mother putting him on a train in Berlin,” Dunlop tells me when I call the couple at their home in Inverness. “I thought - what a terrible thing.”

“I rejected Germany totally for a long, long time,” Wiener, now 91, says. His mother, with whom he was reunited after she also managed to escape to Britain, threw herself into a wartime career as a nurse. “I had one friend from my school days in Berlin, and he was more like a sort of brother to me, but they also left Germany way behind.”

It was during this period of his life that Wiener first picked up a New Statesman. He spent the war years in Oxford, mentored by the Spooner cousins Rosemary and Ruth, related to William Spooner, who gave his name to the speech error.

Then, in the 1960s, his work took him to Germany, where he met fellow researchers. “They all detested the Hitler years,” he recalls. “I started feeling they are no different to me. I no longer felt bitter about Germany.” 

Still, the Nazis' atrocities had left Wiener almost completely without family. He lost his grandfather, aunt and uncle in the Holocaust. His paternal family fled to the United States. By the time Wiener found them again when taking up a fellowship to study in the US in 1956, his father, who survived the concentration camps, had died of a heart attack.

The next decades were spent patching his family together, and also reclaiming a connection to Germany. Wiener’s half brothers, who were born in Shanghai continue to visit. His American nephew, who works in the music industry, has a German girlfriend and lives in Berlin.

Wiener, too, went back to Berlin. In the early 1990s, the city invited former refugees to visit the city, all expenses paid. With some reservations, Wiener and Dunlop took up the offer. “It was quite exciting to go and see places that had been in my childhood,” he says. He also found the old people's home his grandfather had sought refuge in, before being taken by the Nazis.

Meanwhile, his career was taking him around the world, from India to North Korea. His belief in academic collaboration helped to build the momentum for the Roslin Institute, whose scientists eventually cloned the sheep known as Dolly. 

Wiener, who votes Liberal Democrat, wanted to remain in the EU, and he feels “very angry” that 48 per cent of voters have been ignored.

He adds: “I would be surprised if there was a single university or college who was in favour of Brexit.”

As for another of the great challenges of the present, the refugee crisis, Wiener feels a deep empathy for those living in wartorn regions. “Obviously I feel very, very sympathetic to refugees from more or less wherever,” he says. He sees the current German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who acted decisively on this matter, as “a bit of a beacon”. At the same time, he believes that in order to fully integrate, refugees must make learning English a priority. “When I go down the street, and I hear people who still don’t speak English, that is the one thing that upsets me,” he says.

If Wiener, a successful scientist, is an example of how Britain can benefit by continuing to offer sanctuary to the world’s desperate, there is, however, a dark undertone to his integration. As a teenager, he knew there was no way back to the Berlin of his childhood. “There was no young generation,” he says of that time. “There was no future.”

Goodbye Berlin is published by Birlinn Books.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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