As Syria enters its third year of violence, what has changed and what are the prospects for an end to the bloodshed? Below is a quick guide.
What hasn’t changed:
- Assad still in power – Despite widespread predictions that Assad’s fall was imminent, including by President Obama, six months into the conflict, Assad remains in power. Predictions of his quick fall were fed by the examples of Egypt’s Mubarak quickly stepping down under rising pressure and of Libya’s Qaddafi, only able to hold on for several months despite his willingness to pull out all the stops. Part of Assad’s staying power can be explained by the international community’s lesser willingness to intervene following Libya, but also by Assad’s more astute approach, careful to hold back on threats of using chemical weapons and to maintain support from key allies. Rebel forces are gaining, but as long as Assad can maintain his core supporters in the regime and internationally there is little prospect he will step down anytime soon.
- Stalemate at United Nations Security Council – Despite the continually rising numbers of dead and displaced and dire warnings from the UN’s top-most Syria and humanitarian experts, the UN Security Council has been unable to unify behind a common course of action on Syria. Initial sanctions have had some effect, but inflows of cash from Russia and Iran have lessened their bite. Three times Russia and China have blocked harsher action against Syria including an arms embargo. Yet even without Russia and China’s vetoes, western powers would have been reluctant to intervene militarily.
- Syria’s fighting has remained in Syria (for the most part) – While some fighting and air strikes have spilled across the borders to Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, dire predictions of a regional wide conflagration have so far not been realized. Among all the depressing news about the Syria crisis, this is one spot of good news. The threat remains, however, and the international community will have to remain diligent in assuring the current violence is reduced, not expanded.
What has changed:
- 70,000 dead, 1 million refugees, 2 million internally displaced – This is the most striking fact of what has changed in the two years since initially peaceful protests broke out in Syria. With reports that the number displaced has increased by 10 percent in the last week alone, that trend seems only likely to grow. With a series of global vigils, Save the Children also notes that 2 million children have been affected by the violence.
- Relative unity of rebels – While infighting still exists, as evidenced by the recent delay of a conference to set up a post-Assad government among the opposition, the opposition is undeniably better unified than when the violence first broke out. A Syrian National Coalition was formed and earlier this month was offered Syria’s seat at the Arab league. This unity should not be overestimated, particularly with the significant influence of Islamist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, but it has opened the door to further support by western countries and provides some hope for an end to the chaos in Syria.
- Iranian and Russian support for Assad – Iran and Russia continue to supply a lifeline of money and weapons allowing Assad to hold on. Iran has stepped up its supply of weapons in recent weeks. Russia has shown some signs of weakening support, claiming it is not supplying offensive weapons to Syria, but it maintains contracts to repair attack helicopters and shipments of tanks, whether officially allowed or not, have been found originating from Russia. If Russia goes through with its indications of a changed policy it could have a significant influence on the prospects for peace in Syria.
- Arming of rebels – From early on, the rebels were receiving a limited amount of arms through the black market or indirectly from supporters in Gulf states. But that assistance has taken a noticeable uptick in recent months. The Arab League okayed arming of rebels. The United States and European allies have stepped up provision of “non-lethal” supplies like communications equipment and armored vehicles. Now France and the UK are pushing for a lifting of the EU arms embargo to provide further provision of weapons. It is not yet clear whether such a move can truly change the tide, but more than assuring a rebel victory, it may just counter the increase of Iranian support to create a stalemate in the interest of a peace settlement.
So two years into the violence, prospects for peace in Syria remain bleak. The greatest hope seems to be a stalemate that leads to a ceasefire and political settlement and the prospect that Russia might shift from support for Assad to support for peace. With vigils held around the globe and the news dominated today by stories about the two year anniversary of the violence, one can only hope that the concern of global citizens carries over to the concerns of the world’s governments.