These days, it seems like the Syrian Civil War is the sort of terrible conflict that is destined to continue forever. Just when a temporary ceasefire had once again been brokered by the United States and Russia, the conflict descended back into chaos. By this point in the war which has spanned over half a decade, it is difficult to keep track of who is at fault for which attacks against civilians and non-military targets. But the fact remains that, despite the whole world watching this battle, it rages on unresolved. This week, we'll try to understand how this war is still happening after all this time.
First, we need to understand how this all got started in the first place. During the height of the Arab Spring in 2011 (which saw protest movements throughout the Middle East), people in Syria began calling for reform of the government. There was certainly much to be upset about for the average citizen. President (though essentially dictator) Bashar al-Assad had long maintained an unofficial policy of favoring his own minority religious sect over the majority Sunni population. In addition, people widely recognized that corruption was commonplace throughout the government. Though protests were mostly peaceful at first, Assad responded quickly and brutally with mass imprisonment and lethal force. Violence created even more violence, and soon the entire country became embroiled in civil war.
But the various rebel factions were not just a random group of citizens with guns and pitchforks. Some of Syria's top military officials defected and joined the rebels. Though they formed the Free Syrian Army to attempt to bring unity to their movement, their efforts were undermined by other rebel groups who did not want to play along and by radical Islamist groups who didn't really like anyone. Part of this was because Assad intentionally released a large number of radical Islamists into rebel held areas. He planned to discredit the movement by painting it as a terrorist insurgency, which has mostly been effective so far. But overall, the lack of true unity among the rebel groups has meant that no one single military victory can stop all of the rebels.
It's not just the army though, the population itself is split as well. Though the aforementioned religious divide plays a significant role, economic and educational background also factor heavily into the decision over who to support. Add to this the extreme brutality of both sides against civilians (siege warfare, barrel bombs, and chemical warfare) and you have a recipe for ensuring that populations will not easily switch sides. To date, there have been at least 85,000 civilian deaths throughout Syria (and these numbers are almost certainly low). It's not just that each side wants a political victory, their very survival depends upon it because it is almost certain that massive retaliations will occur against civilians of the losing side once the fighting finally stops. In short, people have every incentive to keep fighting.
But all of this still doesn't quite explain why this war has lasted for so long. After all, one side has to run out of bullets eventually right? Well not if they are funded and armed by world superpowers. The two most powerful players in this conflict (America and Russia) are fundamentally at odds with each other regarding the outcome of this war. Russia wants Assad to stay (or at least a Russia friendly government to stay) and the United States wants him gone (or at least an America friendly government installed). Add to this the conflicting interests of Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, and you've got a series of competing proxy wars that would take years to unravel. So now, every side has a nearly limitless supply of weapons (except ISIS since almost nobody likes them). It's not that the world doesn't care about the war, it's that there is little anyone can do when either Russia or America will step in to prevent an action from taking place that disadvantages their side. This is what has ensured the continuation of this brutal war for so long.
At it's core, the issue is that one side wants Assad gone, and the other doesn't. This makes real compromise very hard. And with the severe deterioration of American-Russian relations, a negotiated settlement to the conflict is nearly impossible at this stage. Instead, the war might end up drawing to a close on its own via the destruction of most of the rebel forces. Aleppo is now one of the last prominent cities held by the rebels, and even that is likely to end within the coming months. The remaining rebel territory is mostly in the countryside, far from urban areas and with little strategic value. What this means is that after over five years of fighting, hundreds of thousands of deaths, and millions displaced by fighting, Assad will probably remain as the leader of Syria. Though some semblance of stability may return to Syria once this is all over, it will come at the price of almost an entire generation of people. The world can't necessarily be blamed for its collective failure to solve the Syrian Civil War. But it can (and should) be blamed for its embarrassing and fear-driven response to the subsequent refugee crisis. Once this is all over, we will quickly forget our collective negligence of the Syrian people, but they won't.