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