Columbia International Affairs Online: Policy Briefs

CIAO DATE: 04/2015

TSG IntelBrief: Syria: Four Years of War

March 2015

The Soufan Group


• The fourth anniversary of the start of the Syrian uprising has passed and the conflict sees no end in sight

• The humanitarian consequences of the conflict overwhelm the capacity of the international community to deal with them

• The involvement of malign non-state actors has complicated political options, both in the region and beyond

• Syria has become part of the counterterrorism agenda, and will likely be resolved in that context-however, any solution will take time.


As the Syrian conflict enters its fifth year, it is worth reviewing what has happened - and what has not happened - since the government reaction to anti-regime graffiti scrawled by children on a school in Dera'a in southern Syria in March 2011 ignited a countrywide civil war.

One thing seems certain: the regime is utterly unrepentant and, if anything, has become even more dismissive and intolerant of its opponents. The current display at the United Nations in New York of regime prisoners who have died from torture is both stomach-turning and instructive. Despite shared citizenship, culture, faith, and ethnicity, the regime is clearly determined to eliminate its opponents, keeping them alive only long enough to find out whom else it should aim to kill. The use of barrel bombs, chlorine gas, and collective punishment through the denial of food and medical assistance to civilians caught in rebel held areas, continues unabated-despite condemnation by the international community, including at the United Nations Security Council.

The broader international response to the war is also instructive. On the humanitarian side, millions of dollars have been pledged to help the Syrian people, whether inside or outside the country, but this falls far short of their needs. In December, the UN launched a new appeal for $7 billion based on current shortfalls and projected future costs, an amount that will remain purely aspirational. But it is an amount that reflects the enormity of the human tragedy. By UN estimates, out of Syria's pre-war population of around 22 million, 12.2 million are in need of humanitarian assistance. Four million Syrians have fled the country, a further 7.6 million have had to leave their homes. The pressure on neighboring countries is immense, especially on Lebanon, where the fragile political agreements between the disparate elements of its people are challenged by more than one-fifth of its population now being Syrian refugees; and Jordan, which is home to the second largest refugee camp in the world at a time of economic stress and social tension. There is no accurate estimate of the numbers of dead and wounded.

On the political side, the international community has not yet seen the Syrian conflict as serious enough to merit casting aside broader interests. The current atmosphere within the Security Council is not conducive to peace-making, and the competition for hegemony within the region prevents concerted action there as well. The UNSG mission of Staffan de Mistura spins in ever decreasing circles with its indefatigability unrewarded by any substantive sign of progress. The Syrian regime is confident and feels little pressure to compromise, even on its atrocities; the opposition is in disarray, with its supporters constantly trying to build a larger and stronger structure with less and less material. Secretary Kerry as good as acknowledged the futility of this effort on March 15 by stating the need to restart negotiations with Assad.

And rising out of all the chaos and misery is their ultimate exploiter: religious extremism, curiously self-identifying as a harbinger of the apocalypse as it sows yet more chaos and misery. Whether in the form of the al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al Nusra or the so-called Islamic State, violent extremist groups that claim religious legitimacy have come to define the Syrian conflict for the rest of the world. They have at the same time demanded broader international involvement while making it harder to chart a course between the unacceptability of a return to the status quo ante, and an equally unacceptable accommodation of their policies of intolerance. The flow of foreigners to join the ranks of the extremists is seen as a long-term threat to the security of the countries from which they come, and although still unquantifiable, it is a threat that cannot easily be ignored. This has thrown the national tragedy of Syria into the bottomless pit of international counterterrorism, now rebranded as countering violent extremism.

In 2011, when the Syrian problem had not yet erupted into horror, counter-terrorists had begun to cast around for something new to do. But the Syrian war and its consequences have not only revived the industry but brought about a further period of exponential growth. Counterterrorism has increasingly come to incorporate many of the routine functions of government, such as the delivery of justice and the promotion of national cohesion, as policymakers seek to fight their way upstream of the problem while struggling past the domestic shoals of political opportunism. There is nothing like terrorism as a source of populist sound bites that offer simplistic and unrealizable solutions.

The Syrian civil war is not therefore a distant problem in a distant land. Apart from the fact that the problems in Syria are manifest also in Iraq, Libya, and Yemen, they have immediate and future consequences for the rest of the world. They have exposed the limitations of the international order and challenged assumptions about state borders, self-determination, and the durability of international agreements; they have made other countries wonder about their own societies and increased inherent tendencies to distrust and blame ‘the other' for all ills.

Syria is a thoroughly modern conflict despite its timeless violence and destructive force. It has defied any effective policy response. Maybe in time it will bring about a better understanding of the way that violent non-state actors with international appeal can exploit bad governance and the fault lines of society to make those problems worse. Perhaps that in turn will lead to new thinking about solutions and better means of prevention. But as yet there is no sign of this. It may take another four years for peace to reassert itself, but by then the Middle East will look rather different from how it does today, and so too may society more broadly.