Kobani, Syria. Wednesday, October 28, 2015. Photo: Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
[Published in The New York Times Sunday Review.]
BEIRUT, Lebanon — NOOR, who is a commander in a pro-government militia near Damascus, thinks that President Bashar al-Assad will prevail in Syria’s civil war. But even so, he thinks it will take his country a generation to recover. “After we finish this war, we’ll spend another 10 years cleaning up the thugs and warlords on our own side,” he told me when I met him in the Damascus suburb of Jaramana, in an apartment overlooking a highway where rebels and government forces clash nightly.
That was last fall, shortly after Russia began bombing in support of the government. This infusion of firepower changed the course of the conflict. After years of stalemate, Syria’s civil war became unstuck. But that hasn’t made it ready for settlement.
Negotiations over Syria’s future restarted in Geneva last week amid cautious optimism that the regime and the opposition may finally be ready to discuss a deal. Russian and American diplomats are talking about shared goals, and both countries finally seem willing to strong-arm their clients to the table. Opposition groups and their sponsors say they have achieved levels of unity that will enable them to force concessions from the government, and for the first time they have admitted in public that they’re willing to work with some regime figures.
But all of this misses the central point: Syria, one of the most important states in the Arab world, has cracked up, and no peace settlement can put it back together.
Despite talk of a “regime” and “opposition,” Syria today is a mosaic of tiny fiefs. The government has ceded control of stretches of land to Iran, Russia and Hezbollah. Its opponents range from the apocalyptic Islamic State to a coterie of tiny insurgent groups led by local warlords reliant on foreign donors. On all sides of the conflict, warlords mark territory with armed checkpoints. These low-level bosses have tasted power; it’s hard to imagine they will readily submit to any national government.
The collapse of Syria poses a huge threat to Middle Eastern stability. For good and for ill, Syria has been a major player in the Arab world since World War II. It often acted as spoiler, string-puller or savior in the conflicts that ravaged its neighbors. It was a major player among the dizzying cast of foreign powers that intervened in Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, and brought that conflict to an end with an outright occupation blessed by the United States.
Without Damascus, a rogue’s gallery of militant movements might never have survived. Hezbollah grew into a powerful regional actor with sustained aid from Syria. Hamas’s leaders weathered lean years in exile in Damascus. Many groups labeled terrorists by Western governments found refuge in Syria. The Assad government’s patronage of Iraqi rebels helped fuel the uprising against the American occupation, and provided crucial early support to radicals who today lead the Islamic State.
And yet, for all these destabilizing moves, Syria was a coherent focal point in a region short on leaders who could deal and deliver. On occasion, even the United States and Israel enjoyed close collaboration with Damascus.
Now, Syria seems destined to influence the region not as a puppet-master but as a black hole. Syria’s war already has spawned chaos, from the millions of refugees seeking safety beyond the country’s borders to the rise of the Islamic State and the tremendous traffic in weapons and cash to militants.
The next chapter could be even worse. Even if some fraction of the opposition can reach an accord with the government, the area they could try to rule would amount to a rump state. The nation’s industrial heartland and most populous city, Aleppo, has been almost completely destroyed. Before the war, Syria’s manufacturing economy, education and health systems all functioned well by regional standards; they are unlikely to recover. The postwar landscape will probably play host to extremists, entrepreneurs of violence and widespread graft.
So why does anyone have hope for the talks in Geneva?
One reason is superpower politics. Russia and the United States are looking for ways to calm tensions, and diplomats from both countries believe an accord could lead to progress on issues they consider more important, like Ukraine. Another critical factor is exhaustion: Iran and Hezbollah backed the regime for years but, without Russia’s assistance, were unable to help it hold ground, much less win. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United States, the main sponsors of the opposition, have pulled back support whenever their proxies have surged, perhaps unsure that they’ll behave responsibly if they win power.
Syria’s civilians are desperate. The ranks of fighters are dwindling, especially on the government side. None of the parties have given up hope of outright victory, but an increasing number of rebels and midlevel government supporters acknowledge that they will either have to settle for a divided country or join forces with their sworn enemies. Some of the rebel commanders I interviewed in March said they believed the war had entered an endgame, but that it would take at least a few more years of fighting before serious negotiating would begin. Until now, none of the players have taken peace talks seriously.
Russia and America’s renewed engagement has drawn the notice of negotiators, but that means only that they believe they might be embarking on a real process — not that they expect a result soon. That rivals like Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as Russia and the United States, will see eye to eye on a brokered deal to end the war is a long shot. But the idea that they would work together to prevent Syria’s continued decay into a zone of violence is an even longer one.
For now, Mr. Assad’s negotiators still consider the rebels “terrorists,” while the opposition insists that Mr. Assad, “the disease that struck Syria,” must step aside immediately. The state over whose fate they’re haggling, however, appears beyond salvaging.