It’s the land where the Arab Spring collided with a dictatorship determined to stay in power. For decades, Syria’s leaders imposed stability on the country’s mix of religious and ethnic groups. Then civil war erupted in 2011. Secular Syrians, homegrown Islamist radicals and foreign Sunni jihadists battled forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and — at times — each other. The conflict fed the growth of the al-Qaeda spinoff Islamic State, which used the turmoil to conquer territory in Syria and Iraq. After more than six years, the war appears to be winding down, with Assad and his backers — Russia, Iran and the militant Lebanese group Hezbollah — prevailing. It’s a costly victory: an estimated 470,000 people — about 1 in 50 citizens — have been killed, with much of the country’s roads, factories, hospitals, schools and homes destroyed.
Russia has taken the lead in trying to revive long-stalled peace talks aimed at reaching a political settlement between the Assad regime and Syrian rebels. It was Russia’s bombing campaign, which began in 2015, that turned the course of the war. Both Russia and the U.S. were drawn deeper into the conflict by Islamic State’s initial gains in the country and its terrorist attacks around the world. Different Syrian rebel groups were backed by foreign powers including Saudi Arabia and the U.S., which in mid-2017 ended its covert program to train and arm moderate groups. The U.S. also armed Kurdish fighters in Syria to combat Islamic State, whose remaining fighters were pushed into an ever-smaller area around the border with Iraq. Syria’s war has produced the largest forced displacement of people since World War II. The war has uprooted about half the country’s prewar population of 22 million, creating more than 5 million refugees. Of those who remain, an estimated 60 percent live in extreme poverty, with the economy shrinking to a quarter of its size before the war. Most cities get just a few hours of electricity a day.
Once a French-run mandate, Syria became independent after World War II. In 1966, military officers belonging to the Alawite minority took power. That assured the domination of the group, whose faith is an offshoot of Shiite Islam, in a country where more than 70 percent of the people are Sunni Muslim. Syria’s population includes sizable Christian, Druze and Kurdish communities as well. Long-time President Hafez al-Assad, who brutally suppressed dissent, was succeeded by his son in 2000. Using his father’s playbook, Bashar al-Assad crushed peaceful protests in March 2011 and unleashed attack aircraft, helicopter gunships, artillery and tanks against lightly armed rebels. The conflict broke largely along sectarian lines, with Syria’s Alawites and Shiites from other countries supporting Assad and Sunnis backing the opposition. After a poison-gas attack in August 2013, the U.S. and Russia worked together to get United Nations inspectors to destroy Syria’s known chemical weapons stores. But there’s evidence that both Assad’s forces and Islamic State have used such weapons since. Russia had long maintained its only military base outside the former Soviet Union at Syria’s Mediterranean port of Tartus and in 2017 made a deal preserving access to an air base near Latakia.
The future of Assad himself was a sticking point in earlier peace talks, with rebels insisting on a transitional government in which he played no part. In October, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Assad’s reign “is coming to an end” and that the U.S. saw no role for him in a future, unified Syria. Yet Russia and Iran are the most influential foreign powers in Syria, and they’ve made significant investments in Assad. Russia has said all along that its goal in Syria has been to keep the country secular, independent and intact. A continuing role for Assad would leave Syria headed by a man widely considered to be responsible for war crimes, including targeting civilians and using chemical weapons. That would make it challenging for the government to regain legitimacy throughout Syria and to attract the foreign assistance it will need to rebuild.
First published Oct.
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