Beyond the end

Approaching end of the Syrian Civil War will raise different challenges, opportunities and implications for all the international and regional actors that are involved

March 15 marked nine years since protests in Syria calling for democratic reforms and greater freedoms triggered a civil war that has decimated the country, drew actors such as the US, Russia, Iran and Turkey as well as led to the most severe refugee crisis since World War II.

The conflict began after president Bashar al-Assad's government violently repressed civilian protests against his regime in 2011, also known as the Arab Spring.

According to the UN, humanitarian groups and Syria watchdogs, Assad used various brutal and inhuman methods such as imposing starvation sieges on rebel-held territories, repeatedly bombing hospitals and civilian infrastructure, arresting and torturing thousands of activists, bloggers and civilian, using chlorine bombs and chemical weapons such as Sarin gas against the rebels, killing children and civilians in the process. The Syrian government has repeatedly denied the allegations.

Despite political rebellion, virulent insurgency and international condemnation, a tall and shy President Bashar al-Assad seems to be emerging militarily victorious with the backing of Russia and Iran as the conflict has entered its endgame with only the northwestern Idlib region remaining outside of the government control.

At the height of the fighting, radical Islamist groups seized control of vast swathes of the country, only to lose it in the face of sustained counter-offensives by pro-government forces as well as a US-led coalition of Western militaries.

The Syrian conflict has led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, displaced millions and helped spur the rise and aggression of the Islamic State terrorist organisation.

Though the Islamic State no longer controls any territory in Syria and lost its leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, it has not been eliminated completely and still retains a significant number of fighters and sympathisers who could pivot to insurgency and terror attacks, whether in Syria or elsewhere.

Syria is beginning to fall off the international agenda. Though Russia and Turkey remain actively engaged, interest is waning among other actors, including the United States.

The US actively supported rebel groups in the first years of the civil war and later focused on crushing the Islamic State in Syria. Once the Islamic State was effectively defeated, President Donald Trump began reducing American involvement. In a controversial move, Trump pulled American forces out of the Kurdish-controlled zone in northeastern Syria, leaving the Kurds vulnerable to Turkish attacks.

In the past few weeks, the Syrian army's Russian-backed campaign to retake Idlib from the last remaining armed opposition groups holding there resulted in clashes with Turkish forces deployed to protect Ankara supported militias, bringing the two sides close to direct confrontation. Recently two Turkish soldiers were killed in a Russian airstrike inside Syria, aggravating the situation.

With the US and its European allies effectively withdrawing from the conflict, Russia, Syria and Turkey are calling the shots. Neither Russia nor Syria has shown concern for human sufferings.

The fighting in Idlib has sent nearly a million Syrian civilians fleeing toward the sealed border with Turkey that the UN fears could be the single worst displacement of the nine-year war so far, further adding to the war's already staggering humanitarian cost. Last week, NATO-member Turkey and Russia agreed on a ceasefire to halt high-intensity fighting in Idlib.

An estimated 4,00,000 people have died so far and at various point in the conflict more than half of the country's population was displaced. The United Nations Refugees Agency estimates that 5.6 million people have fled the country since the fighting broke, putting a significant strain on neighbouring countries as well as Europe. Under the ceasefire agreement, Turkish and Russian forces will carry out joint patrols along the strategic M4 highway linking Syria's east and west, and establish a security corridor either side of it.

Turkey's immediate interest in the Idlib confrontation is to prevent the mass of refugees from crossing into Turkey. At the same time, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also seems to be trying to gain some leverage for postwar negotiations to ensure that the Kurds in northeastern Syria are kept away from Turkey.

Erdogan is also trying to cultivate close ties with the Russian strongman Vladimir Putin by purchasing missile defence system from Moscow that angered the US while threatening military action against Russian backed Syrian forces.

Russia, which is backing Assad by all means, sees the conflict as a way to reassert itself as an international power broker. However, it is unclear just how much leverage the Kremlin has over Assad. Iran is supporting the Assad regime with military intelligence and training. Iran's presence in Syria and support for Hezbollah militants has alarmed the US and its regional ally, Israel.

The fall of Idlib to Assad's forces seems to be a matter of time. Once the fighting finally comes to an end, the Syrian leader will have to face the challenge of rebuilding the country for which he would need funds. The US and Europe can support the rebuilding of the war-torn country but are unwilling to provide funds without regime change. Russia is also unlikely to bear the costs of reconstruction, which the United Nations has estimated at $250 billion.

It is to be seen if Russia can compel Assad to make key institutional reforms to satisfy western nations' conditions to enable them to fund Syria's reconstruction. Assad is unwilling to consider institutional reforms.

India, which has extended tacit support to the Assad regime since the outbreak of the Arab spring including Syrian-led process to end the conflict, should be eyeing major projects across housing, power, textiles and food sectors after the end of the conflict.

India had made two significant investments in Syria in the oil sector in the pre-conflict days. First, ONGC and IPR International had signed an agreement in 2004 for exploration of oil and natural gas in Block 24 near Deir ez-Zor in the northern part of the country.

Second, ONGC India and CNPC China invested in jointly acquiring 37 per cent stake if Petro-Canada in the Syrian Al Furat Petroleum Company. The conflict and subsequent sanctions, however, slowed down ONGC's operations in the country. India had also set up centres for IT excellence and biotechnology in Syria.

The writer is a former Editor of PTI and served as West Asia correspondent for PTI. Views expressed are strictly personal

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