Syria - a bleak year ahead

Over 60,000 people have been killed in Syria. What prospects face the beleaguered country in 2013?

An extensive 5-month report commissioned by the UN revealed this week that the generally accepted death toll of around 40,000 in Syria was wrong almost by half. Instead the statisticians have showed that 60,000 had been killed by the end of last November, a death toll which is increasing at a rate of 5,000 a month, which surely puts even conservative figures today at 70,000 killed in the conflict as we near the March two-year anniversary.  

Over 2 million Syrians are internally displaced with many living in desperate conditions. Recent news reports have claimed that some displaced people in the north of Syria are even resorting to living in animal shelters and are eating boiled grass as they do not have enough food to be able to survive the winter weather. Over 570,000 Syrians, a large percentage of whom are women and children, have already fled the country with the UN saying that 84,000 left in December alone. Last year Save the Children reported how unaccompanied children were making their way into Jordan carrying few or no physical possessions, but bearing the immense psychological scars of losing home and family.

Meanwhile the country’s infrastructure, both modern and historic, has been battered to the tune of billions of dollars. According to Islamic Relief, some 59% of public hospitals have been damaged or destroyed. Cities such as Homs and Aleppo can be compared to Beirut in the 1980s or the Grozny in the 1990s, with recent media reports highlighting how the industrial parts of Aleppo have been looted down to their wiring.

So what hope does 2013 hold for Syria? Is the night darkest before the dawn or will the UN Envoy Brahimi’s warnings of the country descending into “hell” manifest?

Outside the country, international action is moving far slower than events on the ground. The Obama administration looks upon a complicated conflict that is a brutal civil war between government and rebels with a layer of proxy conflict involving regional powers, and remembers the Iraq and Afghan conflicts that his Presidency pledged to bring to an end. Obama has the US public on his side; a recent survey showing just 24% favour the U.S. and its allies sending arms and military supplies to anti-government groups in Syria, while 65% are opposed, opinions little changed from March last year.

The White House, however, will likely up its engagement following the launch of Obama’s 2nd term inauguration and the coming together of his new cabinet. Reports and options papers are already in motion and the decision from the Senate to order a classified Pentagon briefing on military options reflects a willingness to go beyond being the biggest single donor to the humanitarian response (the UN launched a 2013 appeal for $1.5bn for refugees and the internally displaced).  However as in Libya the US may prefer the option of ‘leading from behind’ and will certainly want a practical ‘exit strategy’ to avoid boots on the ground in an arena that could be targeted by the Iranians if any conflict was to occur there in 2013.

Meanwhile the UK has been proactive within limits as the second biggest humanitarian donor and a bridge builder and convenor of sorts. David Cameron travelled to the Jordanian border following the US election signalling a drive to better unify and lead the Opposition towards a transition to a post-Assad era. Meetings in Doha in November signalled a shift towards a notional unity to the rebellion, although facts on the ground appear more fragmented.

The Russians, who along with China have gummed up the UN Security Council with their double vetoes, appear to be shifting tack with Moscow inviting the Opposition for talks and continued dialogue in “the three Bs conversation” between Brahimi, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Bogdanov of Russia, and US Deputy Secretary Burns. Brahimi's appears to be the only diplomatic game in town and, as a key player in the agreement that brought Lebanon’s civil war to a close, is a worthy operator. His plan, to build on the unity that came out of the 2012 Geneva agreement and chart some form of transitional process reinforced by UN peacekeepers, is bold and open to very fair criticism of being unrealistic.

Regional players are directly involved as hosts to tens of thousands of refugees, conduits to money and weapons and of course pursuant to their own concerns as they are threatened simultaneously by a both exploding and imploding Syria. NATO is deploying Patriot missiles to Turkey and the Americans have send military observers to Jordan. Lebanon as ever remains on the edge of instability but has proven remarkably robust since the start of the conflict, while Iraq has its own problems to worry about with violence in the country in 2012 the worst it has been in three years.

Inside Syria the escalation of violence has seen a conflict originally characterised by the government firing on peaceful protestors with small arms grow to a full blown war complete with SCUD missiles, heavy artillery, cluster bombs and napalm like barrel bombs dropped from aircraft. Massacres and atrocities are hard to keep track of with those in Houla and Jisr al-Shughour best remembered, along with the stories of beheadings, executions, the targeting of civilians queuing to buy bread, growing sectarian strife and a glut of horrific YouTube clips. The conflict and the steady collapse of the state have seen transnational fighters on the move across the region and new groups establishing themselves with a host of ideologies and agendas.

Syria remains the most dangerous place in the world for journalists to report from and is surrounded by a dense fog of war that makes a true understanding of daily events difficult to ascertain. While there appear to be stalemates in several urban centres, the rebels are arguably making slow progress by increasingly looking to target military installations rather than capturing urban areas that are subsequently heavily hit by regime artillery fire. The steady capture of weapons and drip drip of defections by military and political leaders of various stripes has forced the regime to consolidate its forces, surrendering large parts of the north and particularly the north-east.

Against such a backdrop, analysts and media observers are constantly looking for moments that can be seen as tipping points towards a possible end to the conflict. Such a point however, is likely to only been seen through the prism of hindsight as the complexity and unpredictability of events is seemingly the one guarantee. Although the worst case scenario for Syria is a Somalia model of complete state collapse, Lebanon and Iraq perhaps are more obvious signposts of what’s to come once the conflict has played itself out. The Lebanese civil war lasted from 1975 to 1990 and remains capable of restarting, and although the precise start and finish of the Iraqi civil war are disputed the country’s chronic violence continues. Tragically mixing international apathy with a largely stalemated civil war means that the most likely scenario for Syria is one of sustained conflict with no obvious end in sight.

About the author

James Denselow is a Middle East analyst based at Kings College London. He is a director of the independent New Diplomacy platform.