Since 2019 when the Syrian tragedy appeared to have reached its denouement, a succession of erroneous analyses, mainly by the powers involved, has prevented the development of a strategy to restore the war-torn nation to a semblance of normality. The first error was the belief that the war had ended.
Russian propaganda spoke of "another triumph" for President Vladimir Putin, with a supposed rerun of his success in "defeating the Chechen Islamic terrorists." In Syria, Putin was re-fighting the war in Chechnya, as he is now re-fighting the Second World War in Ukraine. But since defeat is an orphan and victory has a thousand fathers, despite President Barack Obama's decision to do nothing, the US, too, claimed victory in having brought Syria "back from the brink".
The leadership in the Islamic Republic of Iran, too, boasted to have won in Syria. The mullahs designated Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani as the "greatest military commander in Islamic history" and claimed he saved Syria from Sunni terrorists and helped Syrian President Bashar al-Assad avoid the fate of Libyan leader Muammar al-Kaddafi.
Another claimant to victory was Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who managed to milk the European Union cow to the tune of $5 billion while seizing control of enough Syrian oilfields and mines to ensure a steady revenue stream in what amounts to international robbery.
Claims of victory notwithstanding, some of us saw that the war for the future of Syria was far from over. There was a lull; but war is a situation with political, socio-cultural and geopolitical aspects, not just a sequence of battles. The 100-Year War in Europe didn't consist of everyday battles for a whole century. The idea that war had ended led to a second mistake: the belief that a United Nations mission could bring "all sides" together in Swiss luxury hotels and persuade them to kiss and forget. When that stratagem, too, failed, a third error took shape.
The idea this time was to let the "main players," that is to say Russia, Turkey and Iran, involved in the Syrian psycho-drama, write a new constitution for the failed state and persuade everyone to sing from the same hymn sheet. Very quickly, however, the trio was downsized to two: Russia and Turkey with Iranian mullahs left out in the cold dreaming of the Islamic Republic in Damascus. However, by 2021 that gambit too had failed, allowing another error of judgment to take shape.
This time, analysts and policymakers claimed that the best way out of the quagmire would be to prop up what was left of the Assad regime and gradually build a new Syrian state around it. Today, many capitals, including Paris, Moscow, Ankara, and Tehran, present that erroneous belief as their "Syria policy" while Washington seems content with sticking to its "Kurdish" enclave and letting others stew in their juices. However, that scheme has also failed.
Despite pumping billions of dollars into Assad's coffers, including $140 million in payments to his entourage by the United Nations, and at least $4 billion in "oil on credit" from Iran, not to mention earnings from smuggling drugs, the Assad outfit does not seem remotely interested in any state-building scheme. According to best estimates, 90 percent of Syria's population, in areas nominally controlled by Assad, has fallen below the poverty line. In those areas, roughly a quarter of what was known in colonial times as "useful Syria", more than 50 percent of basic infrastructure is still in ruins. Worse still, in some areas, even the semblance of law and order created by anti-Assad armed groups has disappeared.
Deraa, for example, is now known as the "wild south," while Sweida maintains an air of normality thanks to Druze armed groups. A sign that the pro-Assad faction isn't interested or is unable to embark on a state-building strategy is provided by the Syrian Army's 4th Armored Division, the elite force led by Bashar's brother Maher al-Assad. It has steadily seized control of humanitarian aid provided by the UN and numerous Western NGOs. Its biggest recent scoop is the control of shipments of grain that Russia steals from Ukraine for channeling to the Levant in partnership with Turkey.
The economic situation in regime-controlled areas is even direr than in areas controlled by Turkey and its allies, the US and its Kurdish allies, Russia and its Wagner Group mercenaries, not to mention Iran and its Afghan, Iraqi, and Pakistani "defenders of the shrine." The latest blow to Assad's position has come from Tehran.
Faced with a deepening economic crisis of their own, Iran's ruling mullahs have decided to end their "oil on credit" scheme. Last October, they announced that an oil tanker touching the Syrian coast under that scheme would be the last. In the future, Damascus would have to pay in advance. They also announced that the sweetheart oil price of $35 per barrel was doubled to $75. Whichever way one looks, Syria is still at war; it is a running wound that infects large chunks of the Middle East, the eastern Mediterranean, and beyond.
With every day that passes, the task of rebuilding Syria as a normal state becomes harder. And yet there is no sign that powers capable of making a difference are willing or able to develop a strategy for healing that wound. The fact that Ukraine is now the flavor of the day is partly responsible for Syria being neglected.
Like it or not, the US is still the only power capable of mobilizing international and regional diplomatic, economic and military support to tackle the herculean task of restoring Syria to a semblance of statehood, as the Clinton administration, massively helped by the EU and NATO, did in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Syria may no longer be front-page news. But even relegated to inside pages, its sinking into the status of "ungoverned territory" poses a threat to regional and international stability and peace.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article originally appeared in Asharq Al-Awsat in a slightly different form and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.