Syria’s Status Quo Ante Bellum

Jack Stebbing is a second year International Relations Student at the University of Western Ontario. He has served as a columnist for The General Assembly since its start in October 2017. His interests include military history, irredentism, and their impacts on modern international relations and conflicts. He can be reached at jstebbin@uwo.ca.

After hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced, what will Syria have to show for its long and costly civil war?

The Syrian Civil War began in March of 2011, and has raged continually since. Since its outbreak during the Arab Spring, it has served as a consistent setting for the stage of international affairs. The conflict was initially prominent in the public mind, as the Syrian opposition seemed capable of overthrowing the government with the same success as forces in countries such as Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. Instead, the conflict raged on with no clear end in sight. New developments within the conflict like the rise of ISIS or Russia’s military intervention in Syria meant that it never truly left both the news cycle and the public mind. Now that the Syrian Civil War is finally coming to an end, it is crucial to explore how a post-war Syria will fit into the world around it, and the impact it will have.

            Syria’s civil war has taken a heavy toll on the country, with hundreds of thousands killed over the course of the conflict. With 6.1 million refugees within Syria, and another 5.4 million having fled it, a massive portion of the Syrian population has been displaced from their homes and livelihoods. Despite these losses, the Assad regime remains in place and appears on the cusp of re-establishing its control over the entirety of Syria. ISIS has been declared defeated. The Syrian opposition fractured in the first few years of the war and are no longer capable of achieving victory. A post-war Syria will look radically different from its pre-war state, but will nonetheless be governed by the same party and ruled through the same system of repression as before. In all likelihood, the defeat of his regime’s enemies on the battlefield will only serve to further secure the position of Bashar Al-Assad. Furthermore, the experiences of the Syrian Civil War may well cause his regime to become even more repressive, with any prior paranoia and suspicion regarding subversion and dissent having been proven wholly justified and thoroughly vindicated. Its position is not unlike the Falangist Spain that arose from the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. Syria has been devastated by war and will be recovering for decades to come, much like Spain was. The events of the Spanish Civil War built the foundation for a regime that lasted until Francisco Franco died in 1975. The length and sheer scale of destruction of the Syrian Civil War has created conditions that will ultimately serve to solidify Bashar Al-Assad’s hold on power.

            Syria’s role on the international stage has changed radically since the onset of its civil war. It has, in the eyes of many, become the location of a proxy war between competing powers. The West, especially America, began supporting and arming the Syrian Opposition early on, and nations like Turkey have issued repeated calls for Assad to step down. Russia has repeatedly supported Syria in the United Nations, and more recently gotten directly involved with troops in Syria, aiding their ally in re-establishing control and resuming the status quo. Regional players like Saudi Arabia and Iran back differing sides along religious lines, further fueling the conflict. Now that the war is coming to an end, Syria will finally no longer suffer extensive foreign interference. Instead, Syria will be capable of asserting itself once again internationally.

            As a nation of limited economic, political, and military resources, Syria is largely constrained to act as a regional power within the Middle East. Even at the height of its power, its ability to project power and influence was limited. With the damage done to Syria by its civil war, its value on the international stage is not on what it can do on its own. Rather, Syria’s position is more valuable with regards to who it can align with internationally. With many Western and Arab countries throwing their lot in with the Syrian opposition, Syria’s choices became clear. Syria has long had an ally in Russia, and their shared opposition to the American-led West made joint cooperation between them a sensible choice. Iran likewise shares Syria’s opposition to the West, but is also opposed to the expansion of Saudi Arabia’s influence in the Middle East. The involvement of Sunni and Arab countries on the side of Syria’s opposition gave both Syria and Iran common enemies on the conflict, and thus provided a reason for the two to align. When the West backed the opposition to Assad’s regime, they made a gamble and pushed the Syrian government towards their enemies. Years later, that gamble has clearly failed, and its consequences will be felt for years to come.

            The fallout from the West’s opposition to Assad’s regime means that Syria will likely become even more estranged from the West than it was during the Cold War. With the rise of the Ba’ath party as Syria’s sole governing force in 1963, Syria fell into the Soviet sphere of influence. Despite the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia and Syria continue to maintain close ties and cooperation, with Russia’s naval base in Tartus an example of this. As the host of its sole naval base in the Mediterranean, Syria is an important ally to Russia. Russia’s crucial support for Syria during its civil war has only served to render Syria all the more reliant on Russia, and Vladimir Putin has not wasted this opportunity to further extend his power into the Middle East. With the announcements of the planned expansion of the Tartus naval base and Hmeimim air base as part of its permanent military presence in Syria, Russia’s influence and position have likely never been stronger within the Arab state.

            Beyond the East vs West view of global politics, the stability of the Assad regime has implications for the future of the Middle East within the context of the ongoing Middle Eastern Cold War. With the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Islamic Republic of Iran competing against one another for regional hegemony along sectarian lines, Syria’s Civil War became another theater in a wider struggle. With Iran backing Assad’s regime, and Saudi Arabia supporting opposition forces, Assad’s victory further threatens the existing status quo that has benefitted Saudi Arabia since Iran’s revolution in 1979. By expanding Iran’s influence and ensuring that Syria will oppose Saudi Arabia for their support of opposition forces, the Syrian Civil War may only serve to embolden Iran and further the conflict. 

            The Syrian Civil War is coming to a close. For nearly 7 years, it served as the battleground for various proxy conflicts between the likes of the United States and Russia, and Saudi Arabia and Iran. Now that the conflict is almost over, with the future of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Syria apparently secure, it appears as though the Syrian people are the clear losers of the conflict. A conflict waged to overthrow a government has ultimately failed to accomplish its goals, with hundreds of thousands dead and millions more displaced. The real winners appear to be Russia and Iran, who have gained from the conflict a reliant and secure ally in an otherwise American. and to a lesser extent, Saudi dominated region. With the victory of the status quo in Syria, it appears that the greater status quo in the Middle East is now vulnerable to be challenged.