Syria welcomed the 11th anniversary of the outbreak of the March popular protests with some shocking statistics, as the latest figures indicate that around seven million have been displaced within the Syrian territory, distributed among its various cities and countryside. Moreover, there is approximately the same number of refugees in the countries neighboring Syria and other countries around the world. These numbers indicate that more than half of the country’s population, which stood at more than 21 million in 2011, was affected by the war that followed the popular protests that demanded the overthrow of the Syrian regime and the departure of its president, Bashar al-Assad.
The reconciliations and settlements that took place in a number of Syrian regions under the auspices of Russia, Turkey, and Iran during the Syrian war led to a major demographic change, which prevented many of those internally displaced from returning to their homes. Moreover, the military operations pushed a large number of residents to flee their cities, towns, and villages. This was the case when Turkey launched its military offensive inside the Syrian territories between 2016 and 2019.
Even though 11 years have passed since the popular protests in Syria and the war that followed - which saw the participation of regional and international parties - the situation in Syria has not changed and is still “very bleak” and “extremely difficult,” using the terms of the Syrian politician who leads the “Syria First” party.
Salman Chebib, who heads Syria First, told Majalla in a lengthy interview over the phone that there is a “solid political impediment. All political means are blocked and suspended and no serious breakthrough has taken place so far. Therefore, the ability of the Syrians to influence the determination of their destiny and their future is waning day by day, in favor of various regional and international powers. The internationalization of the current crisis has had dangerous repercussions that deepen every day and that intertwine any solution to this crisis with the existence of international and regional agreements, which are difficult, if not impossible, to reach within the current international milieu.”
De facto partition and faint-hearted Arab normalization
He added, "There is also a de facto enforced division in the country that is protected by the military presence of the armies of major and regional countries and dozens of organizations and militias, some of which have been classified as terrorist organizations by the international community, such as Jabhat al-Nusra (the arm of al-Qaeda in Syria) and ISIS, which some parties are trying to revive. Additionally, the political track for a peaceful resolution, namely, the Geneva process and Resolution 2254, is completely halted. Even the parallel peace initiatives that were attempted, such as Astana, have had their power and purposes exhausted.”
He continued, “The attempts at Arab normalization with Syria are still hesitant and faint-hearted, and linked to complex and intertwined international and regional considerations. These attempts have coincided with the Russian-Ukrainian war and the violent and dangerous international clash taking place there. This has added a new layer of complexity to the Syrian crisis and caused the possibility of its solution to inevitably require international agreements, especially between Russian and USA. The possibility of such agreements has also faded to a large extent, and therefore there is a serious threat that the Syrian territories will turn into a new confrontation field among these parties, 11 years after the popular protests.”
Amidst these political and military complications taking their toll on the Syrian crisis, the Syrian Constitutional Committee - which includes representatives of the Syrian government, the opposition and civil society, and officially started its work in Geneva on October 30, 2019 - continues to draft a new constitution to advance the peace process in the country. However, despite holding six rounds, it has still not made any progress. Nonetheless, it will continue to hold its sessions in Geneva again this March. Jennifer Fenton, a spokeswoman for the office of the UN Special Envoy for Syria, announced in a press conference weeks ago the “confirmation of the logistical arrangements” related to the seventh session, which is scheduled to be held on March 20. She added, “The eighth and ninth rounds of the committee will supposedly be held in May and June this year.”
In this regard, Chebib assured that “all the political movements related to the Syrian crisis, the efforts of all international envoys, and the work of the Constitutional Committee which was formed several years ago, during which only six rounds were held, have had zero, and even sub-zero results. The only outcome that has not been announced so far is the death of the political process in Syria, as the role of the Constitutional Committee survives on confirming the existence of a political path.”
The crisis is not constitution-related
Chebib added, “It is not possible to expect a serious breakthrough and tangible results regarding the work of this committee, especially if we take into account the mechanism of its formation and its method of work. The issues discussed during the previous sessions were not related to the committee’s tasks, which prompted the international envoy to work according to a side track that represented his plan, which he called the “step for step” method. Therefore, the chances of the success of this committee seem slim, especially since the crisis in Syria is not primarily a constitutional crisis. I also do not think that finding a new constitution or amending the existing one can be an entry point for a proper solution.”
Chebib also believes that “the lack of seriousness among all parties, including the internal and external, to reach a solution, or even to lay a real basis for a solution, stands in the way of any peaceful resolution. All parties and countries in the Syrian crisis always say and repeat that there is no solution in Syria except a political one. However, they are not working seriously to reach this solution, as they announce their commitment to the articles of UN Resolution 2254, but at the same time they are trying to invent other paths to circumvent this Resolution.”
He continued, “All parties affirm their commitment to the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Syria and signed the statements to that effect. The practices and behavior of many of them on the ground completely contradict such words. As a result, if the previous six rounds, which were held amidst better international conditions, did not yield any results, the new round will certainly not be better. The Syrians in the first place have lost interest in this committee and lost hope in the results of its work.”
no alternative for the solution between Damascus and Autonomous Administration
In conjunction with the intermittent sessions held by the Constitutional Committee, the government in Damascus failed to reach solutions with the “Autonomous Administration” of northern and eastern Syria. The administration includes parts of the Aleppo and Deir Ezzor governorates, in addition to the entirety of Raqqa and Hasaka, with the exception of two areas controlled by the Turkish army since the beginning of October 2019.
The head of the Syria First party stressed that "the Syrian government and the Autonomous Administration have no choice but to reach an agreement, no matter how late it is and no matter how much the two sides try to evade this requirement. In my opinion, solutions to all the existing problems between these two entities can be reached when there is a will and a serious desire to do so, and when the two sides proceed from Syrian national interests and refrain from bullying or threatening each other with foreigners. The Syrians, despite their differences, are in one boat tossed by the waves, and therefore have no choice but to effect a collective rescue or die together.”
He added, “The two parties can conclude a national agreement away from the others, which in turn can solve all existing problems, such as the issue of administrative divisions and the issue of integrating the Syrian Democratic Forces, the military faction of the Autonomous Administration, into the National Army through appropriate arrangements. There are international experiences that can be beneficial in this regard. Syria needs a final solution that achieves the interests of all its components through a national partnership within its territorial integrity.”
With the failure of the talks between Damascus and the Autonomous Administration, the government has been trying with Russia’s support to impose its control militarily over most parts of the country, including the Idlib governorate, which has been out of its control for years. Will the Russian military operation in Ukraine affect the progress of the government forces inside the Syrian territory?
Idlib issue is more political than military
Answering these questions, Chebib said, “The issue of Idlib and other occupied areas controlled by terrorist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaeda, and those supported by the Turkish army, can be resolved militarily. The Syrian army, with the support of Russia, can resolve this matter within a short period. The huge military buildup and integrated equipment to achieve this are all in place. However, the actual Turkish military presence on the ground, the understandings between Moscow and Ankara, and the network of intertwined interests between them have hindered this process.”
He pointed out that “the intersection of Russian-Turkish interests and the arrangements between the two sides deem the issue of the government's re-imposition of its control over Idlib and other areas to be more political than military. Therefore, it is largely linked to a comprehensive political solution to the Syrian crisis with its complex regional and international dimensions. Accordingly, the Russian military operation in Ukraine, will have a direct and early effect on the situation in Idlib and the Syrian crisis as a whole.”
The Syrian war caused a major economic crisis in the country, with more than 90% of the population living below the poverty line, according to statistics by international organizations that stressed the urgent need for aid. The head of Syria First described this situation as "tragic and extremely harsh.”
He also said that “the reality on the ground is more bleak than international reports picture it. The economic and humanitarian situation is extremely harsh and is constantly becoming more difficult. Some may find it difficult to believe that there are families who abandon their children because they are unable to feed them. As the crisis continues, the system of societal values is undergoing a major disintegration process. The results have started to take shape in horrific, strange crimes, unprecedented in the history of Syrian society as a result of the increasing poverty and hunger among the population. This is especially the case in light of the absence of reasonable work opportunities amidst the destruction that has affected the entire productive structure in the country.”
State services declined and poverty rates rose
Chebib also revealed that "the massive decline in the level of the Syrian family's income, accompanied by a continuous rise in the requirements for securing the minimum living standards - such as the prices of basic materials, especially food, following the continuous devaluation of the national currency - in addition to the inability to provide electricity and fuel and the lack of job opportunities, contributed to the high rates of poverty among the population. These factors have put Syrians in the face of catastrophic humanitarian conditions.”
He indicated that “there is a clear decline in the level and work of the health sectors, including hospitals and clinics, as a result of the decline in the state's capabilities because of the current war. Add to that the international siege imposed on the country, as well as Western sanctions, especially the US Caesar Act, which aggravated the sufferings of Syrians. The Act created a suitable environment for the thriving of looting and corruption, which took its toll on the poorest classes, making life in Syria almost impossible. Millions of young people were therefore haunted by semi-suicidal options, such as emigrating in any way possible, no matter how high the risks are. Such thoughts unfortunately were behind the drowning of many Syrians who were fleeing in illegal immigration boats. Not to mention, unfortunately, that a large number of these refugees turned into mercenaries taking part in the wars of others, on multiple fronts, such as Libya, Armenia, and lately Ukraine.”