What is happening to Syria gives little reason for optimism. What positivity there is must be extracted from adverse events – and present events are adverse.
The regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and its allies are engaged in an offensive on the remaining rebel pockets in southern Syria. The offensive has taken on a brutal character and, while the battle is not over, its likely result is known.
Daraa, absent international action to restrict the regime’s war effort, appears to have fallen. This will occasion a new humanitarian crisis and the surrender of Daraa, where the Syrian revolution began, will be its own tragedy.
One grain of optimism is that the conclusion of the Daraa offensive may mark the end of something. It could be the moment the regime’s ability to act with aggression and impunity expires.
Those areas of Syria outside the regime’s control are so well protected as to be unworthy of attacking. They are not just defended by their inhabitants. They are guarded by greater, external powers. Any regime attack would not only be repulsed; it would be punished, with consequences greater than Assad would rationally accept.
That applies to north-western Syria, which is the domain of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the favoured proxy of the United States and the coalition fighting the Islamic State (ISIS).
The SDF is more a brand than a unified political project, but the United States and the coalition have helped it capture large sections of Syria, including Raqqa, ISIS’s self-proclaimed capital.
Coalition countries have been willing to defend SDF areas from Assad, both rhetorically and with force. When a large pro-regime host attempted to cross the Euphrates and attack an SDF headquarters and US special forces personnel in February, the United States retaliated with aircraft and artillery, killing hundreds of fighters aligned with the regime. Any new attacks across the river by the regime coalition would be met with the same firmness.
North-western Syria also enjoys protection as part of a foreign sphere of influence. In this case, the protecting power is Turkey. Ankara has said openly that the integrity of Idlib is a red line. Turkish forces are in operation in Idlib and in two neighbouring regions, which were captured by Free Syrian Army factions with Turkish support.
This is motivated by Turkey’s pursuit of its own interests. However, given that Idlib is home to millions of displaced Syrians – civilians transported to the province by regime forces as part of ceasefire deals – defending Idlib, with them in it, is politically expedient and morally right.
The situation in Daraa is deplorable and allowing the regime to conquer that city will prove disastrous. This has been the result of standing by while the regime and its allies pursue a strategy of domination across Syria. Those effects are barbaric and will be felt for decades.
Daraa’s fall, however, may serve as an end to this campaign of domination.
Any restraint imposed on the regime’s ability to be aggressive is to be welcomed. If these red lines drawn around northern Syria are enforced – and sadly, the international record on this front is hardly consistent – at least part of the country will be spared that aggression.
If this proves correct and the regime’s war machine halts its advance on civilians protected by foreign powers, there are reasons to be thankful. However, that happy eventuality would prompt its own unhappy questions.
How many more could have been saved from regime violence had other countries more seriously asserted their ability and willingness to protect Syrian lives?
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.