In 2011, protests against the government in Syria began. When the government reacted with brutality, the protests escalated into fighting. Now after four years of civil war, Syria’s population has shrunk from around 22 million to about 16.6 million. The death toll is over 250,000. There are four million Syrian refugees outside the country registered with the UN, another million are unregistered. Over half of the country’s remaining population has been forced by the war to relocate. Syria has become a place where 80% of the remaining population needs international assistance.
The country’s foreign exchange reserves are rapidly dwindling. The economy is breaking down, once a middle-income country, Syria is on the point of economic ruin. The war damage is widespread. It is estimated that it will cost over $300 billion to repair the blasted country once the fighting ceases. As the economic slide continues and with no end to the fighting in sight, more people are leaving. They are heading to Europe because they do not want to be stuck in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan or Iraq. These countries are already flooded with Syrian refugees.
The government of President Bashar al-Assad still controls about a quarter of Syria, the parts containing the majority of the remaining population. His military power is declining. Assad’s army which once numbered 250,000 has shrunk to around 125,000. Russia, which has a relationship with Syria dating back to the Cold War and maintains a naval base at Tartus, recently increased its military support. It deployed a strike force of 2,000 troops, 24 fighter aircraft to support government ground forces, armored vehicles and support services.
Russia’s expanded involvement could delay the regime’s collapse, giving President Putin more leverage in dealing with the West. Russia also faces another problem, some 1,700 Russian Muslims are fighting on the side of the various Syrian rebel factions. Iran is also deeply involved in supporting the Assad government as is Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy in Lebanon.
The other parts of Syria are under the control of the Islamic State (ISIS), the Syrian Kurds and a batch of predominantly Islamist anti-regime groups. The Free Syrian Army is supported by the U.S. and Turkey, the Islamic Front is backed by the Arab Gulf States. ISIS has its own sinister agenda, having established an “Islamic Caliphate” in parts of Syria and Iraq. Another terrorist organization involved in mostly opposing the government is Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate.
After the Paris attacks and the downing of a Russian airliner by ISIS, there appears to be a growing international consensus that a solution to the Syrian conflict has to be found before ISIS can be put of business. The U.S., Russia, Turkey, Iran, the Arab Gulf States and the European Union all have to agree on a course of action. It will be challenging because Russia and Iran want to keep Assad in power, the U.S. and others want him out.
At a recent meeting in Vienna, Secretary of State Kerry prodded the involved powers to agree to push for negotiations between the Syrian opposition and the government of President Bashar al-Assad to begin by January 1. A cease fire monitored by the UN would be the next step in the process. The powers have agreed among themselves to halt all support for the fighting factions once negotiations get underway. It is hoped that a cease fire between the warring parties will allow the major powers to focus on eliminating ISIS, the one thing they all agree on.
There are a number of thorny problems that need to be resolved in Syria. How will the thousands of battle-hardened rebel fighters be disarmed and integrated into society? President al-Assad relies on a huge secret police network to keep him in power. His fearsome security services are against any major change in Syria’s political system. How is the powerful secret police establishment going to be neutralized? The refugees will not be anxious to return to a despotic, wrecked and bankrupt Syria. They have to be reassured that the government will allow them to safely return to rebuild the country. Although Syria is 70% Sunni Muslim, it has to have a government that respects religious and ethnic minority rights.
During the past four years, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen have collapsed into chaos. Recently, ISIS has gained additional footholds in Egypt, Libya and Afghanistan. If Syria is to be salvaged, it will take a lot of effort by countries that usually don’t cooperate with each other. Saudi Arabia and Iran, deeply divided by the Shia-Sunni split, are feuding over their respective roles in the region. Russia is at loggerheads with the U.S. and the European Union over its past actions in Europe. Its autocratic President Putin also wants Russia to play a bigger role in world affairs.
The United Nations says it has received only 37% of the $4.5 billion it needs to take care of Syrian refugees this year. It has already begun reducing its food assistance aid. When the fighting halts, the reconstruction of Syria will be a huge undertaking. Given the divergence of positions among Syria’s many political factions and the contradictory interests of the outside powers, the best short-term solution may be to place Syria under UN trusteeship until the country’s shattered political and economic framework can be rebuilt.