The end of 2017 has brought the long awaited news that ISIS, the symbol of the Syrian Civil War’s uniquely medieval depravity and bloodshed, is on the verge of defeat in Syria. Driven out of its capital in Raqqa and Iraq’s second city, Mosul, the group has been reduced to making a last stand in a remote corner of the desert on the Iraqi Syrian border; its leader, once the next Caliph of the Levant and beyond, now hiding, injured, as Syrian, Iraqi and Kurdish forces scour the land for him as NATO and Russian jets surgically eliminate his inner circle. This, along with Assad’s army’s gains around Syria’s main cities, has led many to speculate that the country’s bitter civil war is coming to its end. Unfortunately, all the evidence points otherwise. The fundamental causes for the war have not changed and are difficult to solve, and it is in the interest of certain powers that it continues.

The Syrian Civil War is often reported on as a struggle for freedom gone wrong of an oppressed people trying to rid themselves of a maniacal dictator. This view, however, is a misunderstanding of the causes of the conflict. It was never about authoritarianism: the vast majority of rebel groups propose systems that make Assad’s regime look tolerant, being willing to intimidate, assault, and on many occasions kill anyone who deviates from their vision of Syria, and only one major mainstream rebel group, the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), has made anti authoritarianism part of their political platform. Instead, the conflict was caused by the convergence of economic and religious tensions.

Tensions started with food riots in the Southern city of Deraa in 2011 as a result of the drought that had befallen Syria from 2006-2010, making it perhaps the first climate change war.Some climate researchers have called it the worst in 900 years, leading to a mass exodus from the countryside into the major cities and a shrinking of GDP by 6.3%. The government’s response, hampered by sanctions, was lacklustre at best as it failed to help the majority of its citizens and instead state propaganda promoted ‘self reliance’.

Such dire economic straits was the catalyst for the protests and eventually the civil war: the country went back to the millennia old pattern of protracted tribal warfare for the 6% of Syria’s land that supports year round farming of crops. After some 5 months of protests across the country, it got to a scale where Assad’s position began to look vulnerable, leading to a brutal military crackdown which was a bit much even by the standards of the Assad family: the people could deal with a powerful secret police suppressing dissent, but the use of the military to suppress civilians, killing around 2000 of them, was more than could be tolerated.

The effects of the drought can be seen to this day. Even in December, Assad has asked Imams across the country to pray for rain. And now the economic problems are even worse, for the war has destroyed large parts of its 4 largest cities: Aleppo, Damascus, Homs and Hama, with the estimated cost going as high as $600 billion. This effectively makes ending the Syrian conflict nigh on impossible, because the economic tensions that started the war in the first place are likely to boil up again at the first opportunity.

To some extent the mass emigration of nearly 7 million people from Syria may help with this, because less people will be competing for the scarce resources the country now has to offer. However, with their departure they have also taken away vital skills Syria needs to rebuild. At least if the cause of the war was Assad’s authoritarianism, some accommodation could be made eg constitutional change; but these economic problems cannot be negotiated away at some summit in a foreign capital.

The other cause of the Syrian Civil War is religious. The conflict between the Alawite Shi’a minority ruling the country and the Sunni majority who considers them heretical. The Alawites who support Assad will not surrender their position of power for fear of being vulnerable to reprisals whilst the Sunni population’s visceral hatred of the Alawites means that they will not stand for anything other than their complete removal from power.

This religious hatred is why their is practically no ‘moderate Syrian opposition’: the religious hatred of most Syrians towards the government pushes them into the arms of extremists. Equally, the most powerful rebel groups tend to be those made up of foreigners who have the financial support, as well as the morale and training, needed to hold out against the government, and these all tend to be one or another of the offshoots of Al Qaida, most powerful being the Al Nusra Front, which after several name changes now calls itself Tahrir Al Sham. They also hold  the most economically productive area of Syria, Idlib province. Here they have not just the support but the gratitude of the local population since they have used the richness of the area to provide the people with a decent standard of living, including free healthcare and 225 sacks of grain per day per neighbourhood in a country where 75% of people are estimated to live below the poverty line. As such it will be even harder for the government to dislodge them from these areas, and therefore those extremist groups will keep growing in influence.

There is also the issue of Russia. It is generally assumed that its goal in Syrian is simply to keep Assad in place. However, it seems like his interests would be better served if the Syrian civil war went on for as long as possible. Before  the Civil War, gulf Nations such as Iran and Qatar were competing to build an oil pipeline through Syria to Europe, but now with the conflict this has become impossible. Were the conflict to end, these pipelines would be build, providing competition for Russia’s oil dominance over Europe and potentially losing powerful oligarchs in Putin’s  regime billions of dollars.

Equally, the war has been an ideal testing ground for Russia’s new military equipment such as the T90 tank, and as such there has been a boon for the Russian arms industry. This would hurt another powerful faction in the Kremlin, the military establishment with business ties to major defence contractors. It seems as if Putin’s  interests would be better served if the conflict continued, and strangely enough, now that Assad no longer looks as if he is about to fall, but equally looks in no state to win the war, Putin has been deescalating Russian involvement. He has been providing another support to make sure Assad doesn’t fall (to maintain Russia’s lease on a naval base in Tartus), but not enough to make sure he wins.

In addition, the Syrian army is in a terrible state. Most of its ranks are filled by badly trained conscripts with low morale who have proved terrible in action. The Syrian army has not successfully conducted a single offensive, and most of these men instead spend their time in logistics and guarding checkpoints. Instead, whenever a successful offensive has been conducted it has been by foreign forces supporting Assad, such as Hezbollah and the Iranian guards; certain pro Assad militias and also Syria’s special forces units. As a whole these forces do not have the numbers to conduct multiple large scale offensives, and are becoming more and more depleted as time takes its toll. As such Assad is unlikely to find a military resolution to the conflict any time soon.

The final complication to ending the Syrian Civil War any time soon is the Kurds. They have been able to build their own, pseudo anarchist autonomous region based on political principles of feminism, tolerance, community empowerment and a healthy distrust for government. Now, armed with American weaponry they have control of 20% of the country which they have taken from ISIS. Now, having tasted their freedom, they are unlikely to go back to the status quo ante, and are likely to demand a federalisation of Syria, which most rebel groups oppose and to which Assad is ambivalent. Most importantly, Turkey views them as one and the same as the PKK rebels who have been fighting the Turkish state for independence since the 1980s, and will do anything to make sure they do not gain permanent autonomy in Syria. This issue, though not unreconcilable, nevertheless adds further complexity to an already fiendishly complex conflict.

Estimates vary on the death toll of the Syrian civil war, but are typically between 200-450000, with no signs of slowing down, in a conflict whose combination of medieval brutality and modern efficiency is a symbol of a new age where history has, most definitely, not ended, bringing memories of an age we thought we had left behind, in a country long thought to be the cradle of civilisation. With no end in sight, every barrel bomb and massacre adds to a cycle of violence which further darkens a night already devoid of stars. 

By Alfie Watkins