Around the world and in Syria itself, there is an idea which is gaining traction.
This idea holds, in effect, that the war is coming to an end. Its proponents suggest that things are beginning to fall into place; that the situation is beginning to become conclusive; and that, very soon, the country will reach something like stasis, or even a final state.
This assumption is not true in any sense. And its untruth is made more galling when considering what this assumption is used to justify.
It is necessary to provide some context. Though this talk – of the Syrian war reaching some kind of violent endgame with the regime coming out on top – has been common currency for years, the present attempt to push the message has a specific starting point. That began with the territorial collapse of the Islamic State group.
IS has seen its territory shrink and its cities recaptured. Its pretence of creating a caliphate has been shown to be worthless. This is the result of the actions of many nations and many individual factions within both Iraq and Syria.
The regime of Bashar al-Assad and its Russian backer are hungry for anything which can be said to give legitimacy to Assad and the structure surrounding him. The recapturing of territory from IS, therefore, has been given a dual significance. It is said to represent an end to armed insurgencies within Syria, and to begin a new era of ‘reconciliation’ and reconstruction, in which the regime hopes to hold all the cards.
Neither of these assumptions are correct. Opposition to Assad abounds – in Idlib, in rural Damascus, in the south of the country. The recapture of territory from IS has been done largely by forces extra to the regime and its allies. And at the same time, IS remains a serious threat, something that is only emphasised by the increasing certainty of its mounting an effective long-standing insurgency in the territories it used to control.
The past few days have seen events which are designed to make a regime-led future for Syria appear inevitable. Assad himself visited Russia, posing – all smiles – for souvenir snaps in Sochi with his protector, Vladimir Putin.
At the same time, some Syrian factions are said to be more openly preparing for a future featuring the survival of Assad’s regime. In the Kurdish north of the country, the Rojava federated areas – and despite Assad’s on-again, off-again threats to fight for territory east of the Euphrates – Syria’s Kurds have begun to suggest that they could work in tandem with the regime.
In a new federal Syria, it has been suggested, notably by the academic Joshua Landis, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) could reflag as ‘Northern Syria Protection Units’, effectively taking the part of Assad’s troops in northern Syria.
This may seem outlandish, but it has effectively already happened in Manbij.
Other examples of co-operation between the regime and the YPG exist, seen for example in the admittedly fractious co-governing of al-Hasakah.
Assad and Russia certainly say they have won the war. And Moscow’s fixity of purpose, especially when compared with the continued chaos of the United States’ approach in Syria, adds some weight to this case.
But it would be both incorrect and immoral to acquiesce unquestioningly to this view of the conflict. One cannot forget the reality of the war and its crimes.
First, the war. Assad still does not control the majority of the country and has no present means to do so. The regime is strung-out, over-reliant on Russian support which, while consistent, is not inevitable and will not be indefinite. Assad has no answer to the challenge of the IS insurgency which is effectively inevitable.
This alone precludes considering the war over and an Assad ‘victory’ a done deal.
Second, the crimes. On the morality of confirming a regime and Russian success, it is worth remembering something else that happened last week. It concerns the investigation of war crimes.
One cannot have a humanitarian impulse and not be heartened by the conviction, after decades, of Ratko Mladic for crimes against humanity. Mladic, known as ‘the butcher of Bosnia’, did in his time only what the Assad regime is doing in Syria today.
His soldiers killed innocents, committed acts of ethnic cleansing, and tormented civilian populations with martial means. In Syria, the Assad regime has done and continues to do all of the above. These crimes will not end with victory; they cannot be rightfully punished if Assad and the apparatus around him are allowed to remain in power. And these crimes cannot be forgotten.
Even if Assad is confirmed in power by an indifferent world, there is still the hope of trial – possibly for him, but more likely for his more brutal lieutenants. The evidence of regime war crimes is certainly extensive. Ba’athist states are bureaucratic, even on the matter of committing acts of violence. There are thousands of documents detailing death; there are tens of thousands of photographs of the dead in regime prisons alone.
And there are significant international efforts to catalogue and categorise the regime’s crimes – the murdered inside regime prisons, the torture, the sectarian brutality. There would be some good in that, some justice.
But failing to prevent war crimes, and waiting instead for the outcome of international tribunals, is more a demonstration of the abdication of responsibility than the active pursuit of justice.
Some things are simply unconscionable. Accepting the Russian and regime definition of victory is one of them.
We are not approaching an endgame in Syria. Sadly, this war has the potential to continue for years to come, bringing with it attendant misery and suffering on a scale not seen in any other country this century.
The war will continue whether the world declares Assad the victor or not. The violence will continue against civilians in Idlib; the many sieges of Syria will persist. And the threat of an IS resurgence remains ever-present. This is not victory for anyone or any faction. And it is not the end of Syria’s war, nor of Syria’s suffering.
This piece was originally published at The New Arab.