As the Syrian conflict marks its 10th anniversary, the protest movement from which it emerged stands as perhaps the most consequential of the Arab uprisings. The March 2011 peaceful protests that erupted across Syria have since evolved into the world’s most complex conflict. Equally significant, the conflict’s trajectory provides important insights into the complexity of the challenges that lie ahead in Syria, with significant ramifications for the region and the broader international community.
Everyday Syrians Bear the Brunt
Syria’s multilayered conflict encompasses a civil war, regional proxy battles and militarized great power competition between the United States and Russia. No fewer than five foreign militaries are engaged in the Syrian battle space. The conflict also comprises a profusion of powerful non-state actors spanning the gamut from Sunni jihadist groups such as the Islamic State group (ISIS) and al-Qaida to avowedly secular Kurdish fighters.
The conflict’s humanitarian toll has been catastrophic, provoking the greatest displacement crisis since the end of World War II. More than half of Syria’s population has been displaced: 6.5 million internally and 5.6 million as refugees; at least half of the displaced are children. The conflict’s death toll was 400,000 in 2016 after which the United Nations ceased providing estimates.
The brutality of the conflict cannot be overestimated, marked by the Assad regime’s routine transgression of international norms, including systematic torture, widespread detentions and disappearances, and the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity. In a recent report, the U.N.’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria documented the massive scale of arbitrary detentions, encompassing tens of thousands of civilians forcibly disappeared over the past decade.
Compounding Syrians’ misery, the country is suffering from the worst economic downturn since the war began. The Syrian pound lost two-thirds of its value in 2020, precipitating high inflation, shortages of necessities and mounting poverty rates. A record 12 million Syrians — 60 percent of the population — are now considered food insecure according to the World Food Program.
Today, the conflict appears to be settling into a protracted, violent stalemate. Syria has witnessed a period of relative calm since the March 5, 2020 Idlib cease-fire negotiated between Turkey and Russia. Frontlines have remained largely static, with an absence of massive military offensives or large-scale displacement. Yet, this stalemate is inherently unstable, with many potential flashpoints on the horizon, including between Israel and Iran, Turkey and the Kurds, and Russia and the United States. Meanwhile, ISIS remains a low-level insurgency, but continues to exploit security vacuums in its efforts to resurge. Southwest Syria is also restive, with episodic anti-regime violence and demonstrations.
Against this backdrop of a fragmented, violent and impoverished Syria, the difficult challenges that lie ahead come into stark relief. In particular, four critical issues will shape the landscape in Syria, but also have far broader implications for the region and the international community.
The multifaceted displacement crisis provoked by the conflict shows no sign of abating and will shape the contours of the region for years to come. Syrian refugees are unlikely to return home anytime soon given the hostile environment and large-scale destruction in Syria. A recent Norwegian Refugee Council report notes that Syrian refugee returns are unlikely in the next five to ten years. Refugee hosting countries are enduring significant socioeconomic challenges, compounded by the pandemic and lockdown measures. Nowhere is this more apparent than Lebanon which is fast hurtling toward becoming a failed state. As more Lebanese sink into poverty, the suffering of Syrian refugees is deepening as well. Ninety percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live in extreme poverty. Without effective interventions, protracted displacement stemming from the Syrian conflict could spark a cascade of crises in nearby host countries, with ripple effects into Europe.
Syria’s internal displacement — the highest in the world — poses equally vexing challenges. Many are forced to live in crowded and impoverished conditions in Idlib, the last remaining rebel stronghold. Threatened by a potential cutoff of humanitarian assistance should the sole U.N. crossing fail to be renewed in July, the impact would be catastrophic.
Meanwhile, the al-Hol displacement camp in northeast Syria hosts 24,000 Syrian women and children who fled ISIS’s last stronghold in Baghouz, Syria, along with 30,000 Iraqis, and 10,000 foreigners. Emblematic of the Syrian conflict’s complexity, the camp embodies a unique mix of humanitarian, protection and security challenges. Noting that half the population is under 12, CENTCOM Commander General Kenneth McKenzie has often raised concerns about the fears of “systemic indoctrination” of children with extremist ideology barring a solution that allows the residents to return to their communities. Experts underscore that prolonged detention under the camp’s dire conditions could contribute to radicalization over time.
Starting in 2014, the U.N. Security Council authorized cross-border aid operations that allowed lifesaving humanitarian assistance to be delivered without requiring the permission of the Syrian government. The Assad regime has systematically obstructed aid delivery to opposition-held areas. Over the past few years, Russia—citing sovereignty issues—has eroded the cross-border mechanism, diminishing the number of U.N. crossings from four to one through its Security Council vetoes. The last crossing into Idlib is up for renewal in July, and Moscow has signaled its intention to block its renewal. If Russia succeeds, the humanitarian impact will be catastrophic. Intensified diplomacy aimed at preserving the U.N. crossing must begin now, alongside contingency planning in the event the crossing is not renewed.
More broadly, the challenge of humanitarian access in Syria underscores the need to strengthen and adapt existing U.N. humanitarian assistance protocols to the complexity of conflicts plaguing the region. As humanitarian assistance budgets shrink, more robust efforts to ensure that the aid reaches those in need will be essential.
Syria is subject to broad, multilayered U.S. and E.U. sanctions. During the Trump administration, the United States doubled down on sanctions to increase pressure on the Assad regime. Last year’s implementation of the Caesar sanctions marked an important milestone by including secondary sanctions aimed at third countries doing business with the Assad regime, as well as designating Syria’s Central Bank. While several factors are driving Syria’s economic downturn and growing impoverishment, humanitarian actors among others have raised questions regarding the sanctions’ impact on everyday Syrians. The COVID pandemic’s onset has only deepened concerns.
The Biden administration has launched a review of U.S. sanctions programs, seeking to understand better both their effectiveness as well as unintended consequences. Given the extensive U.S. sanctions on Syria as well as other countries in the region, the review is well-timed, ideally helping to determine the efficacy of this tool and whether the development of more innovative and effective interventions is needed.
The Assad regime’s routine transgression of international norms with seeming impunity underscores the need to develop more effective mechanisms that ensure accountability. Torture, detention and the use of chemical and tactical weapons against civilians are among the most egregious examples of the regime’s brutality. Progress toward accountability has been halting at best. Yet, some recent developments suggest a potential path forward. Last month a German court convicted a former Syrian intelligence official of crimes against humanity for his role in facilitating the torture of protesters in Syria in the early days of the uprising. Conducted under the principle of universal jurisdiction, the trial also uncovered significant details about Syria’s vast detention and torture system.
Forthcoming criminal inquiries in France and Germany will probe Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his people. The inquiry marks the first time senior Syrian government officials will be held to account for such crimes. While Assad and his inner circle will ignore the outcome of these investigations, these probes could play an important role in creating broader accountability mechanisms that ensure against the international community’s acceptance of Assad.
Going forward, accountability initiatives should focus on intensifying efforts to collect evidence and thoroughly document war crimes, pursuing such crimes with a vigorous application of the principle of universal jurisdiction. With a presidential election looming and Assad’s certain victory, challenging Assad’s impunity is essential to beginning the long process of justice and accountability for Syria’s devastating decade of war.