The Syrian civil war that has decimated the country for 10 years now, provoking a regional humanitarian crisis and drawing in actors ranging from the United States to Russia, appears to be drawing inexorably to a conclusion. President Bashar al-Assad, with the backing of Iran and Russia, seems to have emerged militarily victorious from the conflict, which began after his government violently repressed civilian protests in 2011. The armed insurgency that followed soon morphed into a regional and global proxy war that, at the height of the fighting, saw radical Islamist groups seize control over vast swathes of the country, only to lose it in the face of sustained counteroffensives by pro-government forces as well as a U.S.-led coalition of Western militaries.
The fighting is not yet fully over, though, with the northwestern Idlib region remaining outside of government control. In early 2020, the Syrian army’s Russian-backed campaign to retake Idlib from the last remaining armed opposition groups concentrated there resulted in clashes with Turkish forces deployed to protect Ankara’s client militias. The skirmishes were a reminder that the conflict, though seemingly in its final stages, could still escalate into a regional conflagration. The situation in the northeast also remains volatile following the removal of U.S. forces from the border with Turkey, with Turkish, Syrian and Russian forces all now deployed in the region, alongside proxies and Syrian Kurdish militias.
The return to high-intensity fighting in Idlib has created yet another humanitarian crisis, sending waves of refugees toward the Turkish border and adding to the war’s already staggering humanitarian cost. The estimated death toll is 400,000 people, but it could actually be much higher. And at various points in the conflict, more than half of the country’s population was displaced. The United Nations Refugee Agency estimates that 5.6 million people have fled Syria since the fighting started, putting a significant strain on neighboring countries as well as Europe. Even as the conflict winds down, it is unclear when or if they will be able to return.
Once the fighting finally comes to an end, Assad will still face the challenge of rebuilding the country, including areas where he allegedly deployed chemical weapons against his own citizens. The question of who will foot the bill remains an open one. The U.S. and European countries are loath to work with Assad. And Moscow is unlikely to take on the costs of reconstruction, which the United Nations has estimated at $250 billion. Former U.S. President Donald Trump was eager to distance the U.S. from the situation in Syria, but President Joe Biden has yet to articulate his approach to a conflict whose endpoint seems, as ever, vaguely visible on the horizon, but whose destructive impact is clear and present.
WPR has covered the Syrian civil war in detail and continues to examine key questions about what will happen next. Will Russia and Turkey prevent the crisis in Idlib from escalating? Can Russia force the Assad regime to make key institutional reforms to satisfy Western nations’ conditions for helping to fund Syria’s reconstruction? What role will Iran and the militias it supports continue to play in the country? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.