“Are you there?” This was a question shot at me from a Syrian Twitter acquaintance the other day, followed by a stark reminder: “Hi there! The war in Syria isn’t over!”
For years, the sender of the message had informed me and doubtless many others of what was going on in his war-struck homeland.
Over time, however, many recipients of his reports lost interest as the narrative of “normalization” dominated the international discourse on Syria.
As Syrian President Bashar al-Assad came out of his hideout in a corner of Damascus and visited a number of capitals, the normalization claim began to assume a more serious aspect. The narrative was extended when official media in the Islamic Republic of Iran claimed that “having saved Syria” thanks to “the wisdom and heroism of martyr General Qassem Soleimani,” Iran was now preparing to “take the lead in rebuilding” the war-shattered country.
In his recent meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian spoke of creating a “task force” for Syrian reconstruction. For his part, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi spoke of building more than a million lodgings to house Syrians made homeless by the war. To be sure, it wasn’t clear whether the promise concerned the chunk of Syria that Iran controls or the country as a whole. Iran also promised to revive pilgrimage tourism to Syria, with plans to send over a million Iranian pilgrims a year.
However, the first group of 500 pilgrims, slated to start the scheme last month, haven’t left Tehran yet.
Reconstruction has also been the theme of recent remarks by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose forces control a chunk of Syrian territory. Erdogan’s scheme, however, seems to be limited to the area he controls, a policy that, taken to its logical conclusion, could create a semi-autonomous canton in that corner of Syria.
Russia, another big player in the Syrian war, has also been talking about “reconstruction,” with the Wagner militia supposedly in command.
Reconstruction has also been the theme of fantasies bandied around about rich Arab countries putting billions into raising Syria from its graveyard, in exchange for Assad stopping the production and export of captagon and other drugs that threaten several countries in the region and beyond.
The United States, which controls another chunk of Syria through its Kurdish surrogates, has also made noises about reconstruction, with a team of “experts” expected to report on “possibilities and hurdles” within the next few months.
In France, President Emmanuel Macron’s special envoy on Lebanon-Syria, Jean-Yves Le Drian, claims that “giving Lebanon a working government” is a key step towards launching a global effort to rebuild Syria.
However, all this talk of normalization and reconstruction may amount to no more than idle chatter, because participants in the Syrian tragedy ignore its geopolitical roots. The Syrian tragedy started with peaceful efforts by a large segment of the population to secure more individual freedoms, a curb on corruption and better economic opportunities.
The uprising may or may not have achieved its goals, ending with a fish-tail result as in some other “Arab Spring” countries.
But without foreign intervention, first by Iran, then by Russia followed by Turkey, Israel and the United States, it would not have acquired the geopolitical dimension that has led Syria into a historic impasse.
All the current talk about normalization and reconstruction is a subterfuge to avoid the core geopolitical aspect of this tragedy created by conflicting visions of the future, not only of Syria but of the Middle East as a whole.
This tangled web looks even more daunting when we realize that the vision in question cannot be summed up in two categories. Iran and Russia are supposed to be allies in Syria, but it is obvious that they are in opposite camps when it comes to the future of the region. Russia wants the Middle East modeled on what it was in the heyday of the Cold War, when it acted as a glacier for the Soviet Union. Iran’s ruling mullah, however, dreams of an ideological empire ruled by the “Supreme Guide” in Tehran.
Turkey, the United States and Israel are allies (well, more or less), but when it comes to the future of Syria, not to say the Middle East as a whole, can’t read from the same hymn sheet. Turkey hopes to create a glacier in Syria to make it impossible for rebellious Kurds to form a contiguous belt of territory along its border. Israel’s chief concern is to prevent Syria from becoming a base for infiltration into the Golan Heights and eventual attacks on the rest of its territory. The United States, at least under the Biden administration, is content with a largely symbolic presence and, so far at least, hasn’t offered a coherent vision for the region.
In an outer circle of interest, not to say concern, most Arab nations seem resigned to endorsing the status quo, gingerly modified by such meaningless gestures as the readmission of Assad into the Arab League.
In an even outer-outer circle, the United Nations is trying to dance around the issue with gesticulations about writing a constitution for a non-existent state and promoting peace talks between the Assad regime and personalities and groups that no longer have credible constituencies.
Meanwhile, the war in Syria is far from over.
Nor are its terrible consequences brought under control. In the past five weeks, dozens of clashes between rival groups, including forces loyal to the regime, have claimed hundreds of casualties. The Russian Air Force has conducted 17 bombing raids on various parts of the country, pursuing its mission of turning Syria into piles of smoking rubble. More recently, it has started using Iranian-made drones in some attacks. According to a United Nations report, 31,000 boys aged 12 or above have been kidnapped from Kurdish-held prison camps, presumably to prevent them from growing up and joining “terrorist groups.”
Turkey and Iran continue to exploit Syrian resources of oil, gas and phosphate through black-market networks.
This month marks the anniversary of the chemical attack on three localities in the Ghouta region which, in 2013, killed 1,217 civilians and wounded many others.
The world should not forget that, although it has become an orphan in news headlines, the war in Syria goes on.
Are you there?
This article originally appeared in Asharq Al-Awsat and was reprinted by the Gatestone Institute with some changes by kind permission of the author.