The long road to peace in Syria

Fazal Masood Malik and Farhan Khokhar, Canada

Syria is one of the oldest regions of the world, one which, over the past two decades, unfortunately, has been profoundly shaped by the Al-Assad family’s rule. Hafez al-Assad seized power through a military coup in 1970, establishing an authoritarian regime later continued by his son, Bashar. Their governance has been marked by severe repression and conflicts aimed at consolidating power. The impact of this authoritarian rule extends beyond politics, striking at the very heart of Syria’s cultural identity. Aleppo, one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities dating back to at least the 3rd millennium BCE, stands as a testament to Syria’s ancient civilisation. Its recent devastation deepens the tragic loss of cultural heritage under Assad’s rule.

After more than a decade of bloodshed, Syria’s civil war seems to be winding down, but the country’s troubles are far from over. The conflict, which began in 2011 when Bashar al-Assad’s government violently crushed peaceful protests, has left Syria in ruins. Now, as the guns largely fall silent, a glimmer of hope emerges from the devastation.

The war’s toll has been staggering. An estimated 600,000 people have died, though the true number may be much higher. The United Nations reports that over five million Syrians have fled the country, straining neighbouring states and Europe. (“Syria Refugee Crisis Explained”, The Holy Quran speaks to such suffering: “And what should make thee know what the ascent is? [It is] the freeing of a slave. Or feeding in a day of hunger, An orphan near of kin, Or a poor man [lying] in the dust.” (Surah al-Balad, Ch.90: V.13-17]

Mr Assad has emerged as the military victor, thanks largely to support from Russia and Iran. Yet pockets of resistance remain, particularly in the northwestern Idlib region. The northeast remains volatile, with Turkish, Syrian, Russian, and American forces uneasily coexisting alongside various militia groups.

As the dust settles, Mr Assad faces the daunting task of rebuilding a shattered nation. The UN estimates reconstruction costs at $250 billion. Western countries are reluctant to work with a regime they view as brutal and illegitimate. Russia, embroiled in Ukraine, is unlikely to open its wallet. Iran, though supportive, lacks deep pockets.

Mr Assad has been trying to break out of his international isolation. In May 2023, Syria was readmitted to the Arab League after a 12-year suspension. Gulf states that once backed the rebels are now cautiously engaging with Damascus, seeing Mr Assad as a safeguard against extremism and Iranian influence. However, this regional acceptance has yet to translate into significant financial support.

The humanitarian situation remains dire. Millions of Syrians rely on aid to survive, but getting help to those who need it is a constant struggle. The regime has an unfortunate and inhumane history of weaponising aid and blocking deliveries to opposition-held areas. International donors are wary of funds being siphoned off by corrupt officials or diverted to reward Assad loyalists. (Khoury, Rana B., and Emily K.M. Scott. “Going Local without Localization: Power and Humanitarian Response in the Syrian War,” World Development, Vol. 174, 2024,, Accessed 4 July 2024)

For Syrian refugees scattered across the region and beyond, the prospect of return looks bleak. Many fear persecution if they go back. Those who do return often find their homes destroyed or occupied by others. Rebuilding lives is challenging when basic services like electricity and clean water are unreliable at best.

The conflict has left Syria a patchwork of competing influences. In the northeast, Kurdish forces backed by a US military presence maintain an uneasy autonomy. Turkey, which sees Kurdish militias as a threat, has repeatedly intervened militarily. Russia acts as a power broker, balancing between Damascus, Ankara, and Tehran. [“US Policy in Northeast Syria: Toward a Strategic Reconfiguration”,

Iran’s footprint in Syria has grown significantly. Tehran has spent billions propping up Mr Assad’s regime. Its proxy militias are deeply embedded in Syria’s security apparatus. This expanded Iranian presence alarms Israel, which has carried out hundreds of airstrikes against Iranian-linked targets in Syria. (“Israeli strikes on Syria intensify, raise tensions with Iran”,

For ordinary Syrians, the challenges are immense. The economy is in freefall, with the Syrian pound having lost 99% of its value since 2019. Corruption is rampant, and job opportunities are scarce. Those who opposed Mr Assad—or are simply suspected of having done so—face a climate of fear and retribution.

Rebuilding Syria’s social fabric may prove even harder than reconstructing its physical infrastructure. The war has deepened sectarian divisions and eroded trust between communities. Millions have been traumatised by violence and loss. Here, the wisdom of the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa offers guidance: “Spread […] peace among yourselves.” (Hisn al-Muslim, Ifsha al-Islam, Hadith 224) Perhaps only then, can the healing begin.

The international community faces difficult choices. Shunning Mr Assad’s regime may feel morally satisfying but it does little to help ordinary Syrians. Yet engaging with Damascus risks legitimising a government responsible for appalling human rights abuses. Threading this needle will require creative diplomacy and a willingness to swallow some unsavoury compromises.

Recent events have further complicated Syria’s path to stability. The Israel-Hamas conflict has heightened tensions in the region, with Iran-backed militias in Syria targeting US troops. This escalation emphasises Syria’s role as a flashpoint in broader Middle Eastern geopolitics.

The Syrian crisis remains intractable, with no clear path to lasting peace. The absence of transparent governance and the systematic suppression of democratic institutions have hampered any meaningful progress. Western powers, often prioritising their strategic interests, have inadvertently contributed to the ongoing polarisation, perpetuating the conflict. The United Nations Security Council, hamstrung by the veto power of its permanent members, has repeatedly failed to broker a resolution.

This deadlock raises profound questions about the international community’s moral responsibility. It took the heart-wrenching image of Alan Kurdi, a young Syrian boy who drowned trying to reach safety, to galvanise Western public opinion and spur action to aid Syrian refugees. Yet the underlying causes of the crisis persist. What will it take to address the root of the problem? At what point does inaction in the face of ongoing oppression become complicity?

Any effective solution to the Syrian crisis would require either a genuinely accountable government or the establishment of a functional democratic system. However, neither scenario appears likely under the current circumstances. The entrenched power structures, both within Syria and in the broader geopolitical arena, present formidable obstacles to such fundamental change.

The path forward requires a delicate balance of pragmatism and principle. The international community must find ways to address urgent humanitarian needs without entrenching Assad’s rule. Regional powers will need to set aside rivalries to prevent Syria from becoming a permanent arena for proxy conflicts. And Syrians themselves must navigate the difficult process of reconciliation and reconstruction in a fractured society.

Ultimately, Syria’s fate will have far-reaching consequences, influencing regional stability, migration patterns, and the global balance of power. As the world grapples with multiple crises, from climate change to great power competition among the blocs being formed, the resolution of the Syrian conflict remains a critical test of international diplomacy and humanitarian commitment.

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