Doha, Qatar – More than eight years into a devastating conflict, Syria appears to be stuck in a situation of “no war and no peace”, analysts have said.
The Syrian conflict erupted in 2011 after government forces cracked down against civilian protesters demanding more freedoms and better economic opportunities. Regional powers, including Turkey and Iran, along with Russia, have played a critical role in backing opposing sides to the conflict in recent years.
However, with each of these external actors facing domestic political pressures, they have let the Syrian conflict drift into a stalemate, the analysts said on Saturday at the Doha Forum, a two-day conference in the Qatari capital.
While Iran and Russia have backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Turkey has supported a number of rebel groups, which have been pushed back to a pocket of territory in the northwest of the country.
‘No war, no peace’
According to Randa Slim, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC, the Syrian government was able to regain its strength with regional backing, while the international community, led by the United States and European Union, has lost interest in playing a decisive role in ending the war.
“The situation in Syria today is no war and no peace,” she said at a Doha Forum panel discussion.
Dimitry Frolovskiy, a Russian policy analyst, said Moscow has played an important role in stabilising the government and helping it regain much of the territory it lost to rebels during the early years of the war, but argued that Russia’s position in Syria today is weaker than it was in 2011.
This is because, “as a global power, it has to consider its ties with Israel and because of its inability to finance much of the Syria reconstruction efforts,” he said.
During the course of the war, Israel has acknowledged carrying out dozens of air raids on Syrian territory, saying it had attacked Iranian targets, as well as Tehran’s regional allies.
Frolovskiy said that when Israel bombs targets in Syria, Russia often does not react strongly or try to halt the attacks because it does not oppose Israeli objectives in Syria.
“Russia looks at Israel as a stable power in the region and as an ally,” he said.
For its part, Iran has strengthened its position in Syria since the start of the war because it perceives the country as a key strategic stronghold in the Arab world, Frolovskiy added.
‘Unable to reunite the Syrian people’
Meanwhile Turkey, which has called for the removal of Assad since the start of the war and backed a number of Syrian rebel factions, has sought to mitigate the current situation in Syria with a focus on its own national security objectives, according Ibrahim Kalin, spokesman for the Turkish presidency.
Kalin stressed that the Turkish position has remained unchanged in calling for Assad to step down.
“The Syrian regime still remains unable to reunite the Syrian people together,” he said.
Turkey has backed a range of Syrian opposition groups who seek to overthrow the government and hosts over 3.5 million Syrian refugees on its soil, more than any other country.
On October 9, Turkey launched a military offensive in northern Syria, which it said aimed to remove the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), led by the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) fighters, from the border region.
Turkey considers the YPG as “terrorists” due to their links with the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long war against the Turkish state.
Turkey also said its offensive was aimed at creating a so-called “safe zone” where Syrian refugees could be repatriated.
“The Turkish operation was able to liberate the border region which is an Arab-majority region to begin with but was under the control of the terrorist PKK and its offshoot the YPG [People’s protection units ],” Kalin said.
He added that Turkey was determined to defend its national security by maintaining a presence in northern Syria in order to keep the YPG away from its borders.
Millions of Syrian refugees are currently holed up in the northwestern province of Idlib where the government and its Russian allies have been conducting almost daily air raids in recent weeks, despite declaring a ceasefire in August. Dozens of civilians have been killed in the air raids.
Idlib is controlled by a constellation of Syrian rebel groups, the biggest of which is Hay’et Tahrir al Sham (HTS), a former al-Qaeda affiliate.
Jeffery Feltman, a former US state department and United Nations official who moderated the panel, said “under the current complicated situation in Syria it is a reasonable assessment to say that Syria will continue to be at a no war and no peace situation”.