Syria enters its eighth year of war on Thursday, free of the jihadist “caliphate” but torn apart by an international power struggle as the regime presses its blistering reconquest.
The conflict that started on March 15, 2011 as the government of President Bashar al-Assad cracked down on mostly peaceful protests is raging on relentlessly and getting more complex.
According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, nearly 354,000 people have been killed in seven years. More than half of Syria’s pre-war population of 20 million has been displaced.
International efforts have consistently failed to stop one of the deadliest wars of the century: hundreds of children are still being killed and thousands of people forced from their homes.
Assad, who once looked on the brink of losing the office he has held since 2000, was given a new lease on life by Russia’s 2015 military intervention and is sealing an unlikely recovery.
“Today, the regime controls more than half of the territory. He holds the big cities… it’s clear that he has won,” said Syria analyst Fabrice Balanche.
The government’s latest operation to retake the ground it lost in the early stages of the war is being conducted in Eastern Ghouta, at the gates of the capital Damascus.
Government and allied forces have waged an intense air and ground offensive on the rebel enclave, killing more than 1,100 civilians — a fifth of them children — in an assault whose ferocity has shocked the world.
Deadly barrel bombs and suspected chemical munitions have been dropped on civilian areas, forcing families to cower in basements and turning entire towns into fields of ruins reminiscent of World War II.
‘Scramble for Syria’
The past few months had seen the death of the Islamic State group’s “caliphate”, an experiment in jihadist statehood that temporarily gave rival forces a shared goal and shifted the focus away from Assad’s fate.
The proto-state IS declared in 2014 in swathes of Syria and Iraq it controlled was gradually defeated by a myriad different forces, and 2017 saw the caliphate’s final collapse.
The organisation that once administered millions of people still has a few fighters hunkering down in desert hideouts, but its territorial ambitions have been dashed.
“It is very difficult for IS to get its feet back on the ground,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
He warned that jihadists would retain the ability to carry out spectacular attacks and suicide bombings.
As they invested forces and equipment in the war on the jihadists, world powers were also staking their claim to increased influence in the region.
After foreign militaries finished wresting back one IS bastion after another, parts of Syria that had seen a relative lull in fighting became the focus once again.
“What we are seeing is the scramble for Syria right now,” said Landis.
“The main trend is going to be the division of Syria” into three blocs, he said, with the lion’s share going to the regime, which is backed by Russia and Iran.
US-backed Kurds hold oil-rich territory in northeastern Syria covering 30 percent of the country and a motley assortment of Turkey-backed Arab rebels are carving a third haven in the northwest.
“Turkish and American influence on the ground, inside of Syria, will continue to spread,” predicted Nicholas Heras of the Center for New American Security.
“In this way, 2018 will continue the trend of consolidating Syria into zones of control, even as Bashar al-Assad’s forces make gains in some areas of the country,” he said.
The regime is now bent on breaking any resistance in Eastern Ghouta, which lies on the capital’s doorstep, within mortar range of key institutions.
Balanche predicted that the rebel enclave will not hold out very long and that evacuation deals will be reached.
“For the regime, 2018 is the year it fully retakes Damascus and its agglomeration,” said Balanche, a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
UN-sponsored talks in Geneva as well as Russian-brokered negotiations in Sochi have failed to raise any credible prospect of a political solution to the conflict.
The assault on Ghouta marks one of the seven-year conflict’s darkest episodes, with the international community apparently powerless to stop the bloodshed.
It has left the United Nations virtually speechless, with its children agency UNICEF issuing a blank statement last month to demonstrate its outrage at the carnage in Ghouta.