Today marks the eighth year of the war in Syria. The conflict has produced some of the worst destruction and the most displaced people of any conflict in decades. It is the worst war, for its scale and brutality, in the world in the last decade, and yet most of us know very little about it.
One might think that, entering the eighth year of the conflict, things could be making a turn for the better. In some ways that’s true–ISIS is diminished and talks of rebuilding are more common–but Syria is still very much at war.
Apart from persistent chatter about the atrocities of ISIS and years-old discussions about chemical weapons and Russia’s involvement, it’s understandably difficult for Westerners to get a grasp of what’s going on in Syria–except that, whatever is happening, it’s bad.
Here are ten articles that, I think, are helpful for understanding Syria as it has been shaped over the course of the war–and as it might be in the future. Some are old and some are new. The first five articles enlighten on the past and present state of the conflict, how it came to be and some interesting developments that have gone mostly under the average Westerner’s radar. The latter five articles shine, mercifully, a beam of hope–and realism–on Syria and its future.
Where Syria Has Been
The Hijackers — London Review of Books, Hugh Roberts, 16 July 2015
In what sense, then, can Assad and his wing of the Baath be accused of hijacking Syrian independence? They weren’t responsible for the militarisation of Syrian political life, a process which began years before they took power. More coherently and more effectually than any of their predecessors, they sought to make independence a reality. The tragedy for Syria is that Assad lived so long.
Under Assad, Syria was a republic ruled by an autocrat. A republican autocrat is a contradiction in terms. Cromwell ruled Britain as a republican autocrat and when he died the army commanders tried to maintain the status quo by getting his son to succeed him – the prototype of what the Arabs call tawrith al-sulta, the ‘inheritance of power’ that occurred with Bashar al-Assad’s succession in 2000. But Richard Cromwell seriously tried to liberalise the Protectorate; the army felt threatened and deposed him after nine months. Assad fell ill in 1983 and it seemed for a moment that his younger brother, Rifat, would take over, in what would have been an anticipation of the Cuban scenario. But Assad recovered, sent Rifat into exile and carried on for another 16 and a half years, grooming his eldest son, Bassel, to take over. When Bassel died in a car crash, he summoned Bashar to be groomed in his place. So in Syria, unfortunately, the Cromwellian succession worked; in England it had been a fortunate fiasco.
Amid War, Women are Starting to Make a Mark on Syrian Politics — Syria Deeply, 27 October 2017
In 2014, the leading political force in Rojava, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), promulgated a 30-clause equality decree for gender equality at the social, economic and political levels. It also established a power-sharing system that requires a female counterpart in all positions at all levels of government and enforced a 40 percent quota of women in all governmental institutions and bodies.
Israel’s Quiet Campaign to Gain a Foothold in Southern Syria — Syria Deeply, 15 June 2017
It is now a near-daily occurrence to see Israeli-run buses coming in and out of southern Syria, transporting residents from the opposition-controlled province of Quneitra into Israel. Most are coming in for medical treatment, generally given at Ziv Hospital in Safad, Western Galilee Hospital in Nahariya or Rambam Health Care in Haifa. Some patients stay a few days, a month or up to a year and a half, during which time they are given the opportunity to learn Hebrew and adapt to their new surroundings.
A War Within a War: Chechnya’s Expanding Role in Syria — Syria Deeply, 30 November 2017
Military support, however, is just one way in which Chechen authorities are engaging with Damascus. Kadyrov casts himself as a leader of the international Muslim community, regularly engaging with Arab and other Muslim countries on Moscow’s behalf, and Syria is no exception. Syrian religious figures have visited the Chechen capital, Grozny, a number of times since mid-2016…. Syrian officials also recently announced their plan to build a Damascus University campus in Grozny.
Is the World Failing Syrians — Al Jazeera, Peter Kessler, 6 November 2013
“We are talking about a middle-income country, a country that was highly developed, which now of course has lost much of its industrial base. Its infrastructure largely lies in ruins, more than 5,500 schools have been seriously damaged or destroyed, some 3,000 mosques, some 15,000 doctors and surgeons, are now out of the country. Sixty percent of the ambulances inside Syria have been destroyed or no longer functioning, so we are seeing all levels of life inside the country–the healthcare system, the education system, the infrastructure, the business system–the country is fast collapsing.”
Where Syria May Be Going
Rules for Reconstruction in Syria — Brookings, 24 August 2017
The regime’s approach to reconstruction, and the eagerness of its allies and neighbors to participate in a process that will aggravate the causes of conflict, has important implications for the United States, the European Union, Japan, and international institutions like the World Bank, which are struggling with questions about whether and how to support Syria’s postconflict reconstruction. Unless external actors choose to link their participation in reconstruction to principles that will improve the prospects of durable peace, the regime’s probable military victory will likely be only round one in a much longer cycle of violent conflict.
Will Syria See a Political Solution in 2018? — Al Jazeera, 4 January 2018
“‘The Syrian government seems to be winning, in a slow, painful, imperfect sort of way. Large areas of the country will remain beyond the control of Damascus for a long time still, and violence could ebb and flow for years,’ Aron Lund, a fellow with The Century Foundation think-tank, told Al Jazeera. ‘The various peace processes may succeed in tuning down the violence in various ways, but a genuine political transition seems off the table. It probably always was.'”
The Shifting Role of Women in Syria’s Economy — Syria Deeply, 22 December 2017
The question for Syria moving forward once the war comes to a close is whether women’s place in society has changed forever. According to a report by Bareeq, 88.36 percent of Syrian women believe the fight for women’s rights is a legitimate right, while 96 percent believe a woman’s role is both at home and at work.
A Daring Plan to Rebuild Syria, No Matter Who Wins the War — The Boston Globe, Thanassis Cambanis, 21 February 2015
In terms of sheer devastation, Syria today is worse off than Germany at the end of World War II. Bashar Assad’s regime and the original nationalist opposition are locked in combat with each other and also with a third axis, the powerful jihadist current led by the Islamic State. And yet, even as the fighting continues, a movement is brewing among planners, activists and bureaucrats—some still in Aleppo, others in Damascus, Turkey, and Lebanon—to prepare, right now, for the reconstruction effort that will come whenever peace finally arrives.
Elites, War Profiteers Take Aim at Syria’s Economic Future — Syria Deeply, 18 September 2017
“‘This is what I call the nail polish economy,’ said Alaa, a resident of Damascus. ‘People want to spend their money on the superficial stuff: going out, eating in restaurants, getting their hair done. Having endured these years of war, loss, destruction, people are not so focused on saving for the future and would rather spend what they have now and enjoy what they have.'”