Before Ukraine there was Syria, a war so vicious and consuming that it was once considered to be the most consequential conflict of the last 50 years.
With more than half a million killed when the counting stopped seven years ago, nearly two-thirds of the country’s prewar population displaced or in exile, and its economy and social fabric in ruins, Syria is a shattered husk, its spoils eagerly eyed by the three leaders who gathered in Tehran on Tuesday.
The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, have played leading roles in Syria’s misery for more than a decade, and have been determined to reap benefits from the chaos that remains.
At face value, postwar Syria has offered a smörgåsbord of rewards – carving out spheres of influence, plundering natural resources, and landing lucrative reconstruction deals, among others. But, as all three leaders have learned, nothing comes easily, or quickly, in Bashar al-Assad’s dystopia. In a pyrrhic victory, protagonists need patience, of which Assad’s main backers are fast running out.
Putin, who did more than anyone else to help Assad remain in power, was expecting a rapid return on the blood and treasure he invested from 2015. His intervention in Syria came at the behest of the Iranian general Qassem Suleimani, who flew to Moscow and laid out maps on a Kremlin desk explaining the predicament Assad faced without serious air cover.
As Russia piled in, setting up a no-fly zone and warding off insurrectionists in the north, Iran was busy consolidating its presence in a country that had long been a strategic ally, and had by then become a major opportunity for its own ambitions vis-a-vis Israel.
For much of the past decade, Iran has used proxies to battle opposition groups and jihadists, while securing influence in key ministries and access across the country. Tehran and Moscow had the same ambitions at the outset of the fighting – to stop Damascus from falling. However, they have very different designs on what sort of country should emerge from the rubble.
Erdoğan, on the other hand, has been a key antagonist of Assad, falling out with him months into the uprising that he tried to stare down in 2011. Since then, Turkey’s involvement in the war has ranged from backing and arming opposition groups to making military moves to change the demographics along its southern border.
After offering sanctuary to close to 2 million Syrians, Erdoğan’s government is being squeezed electorally by anti-Syrian sentiment and now envisages sending many refugees back to areas that it aims to cleanse of Kurds.
Erdoğan’s bellicose threats to launch a second incursion into Syria, to ward off from the border the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) and its allies, met a stern rebuke from Khamenei before Tuesday’s summit got under way. Tehran has stuck to its line that Assad is Syria’s only valid interlocutor and claimed that talks over the Kurdish-led north-east should involve Damascus.
Russia, too, is anxious to avoid another Turkish push – after a brief incursion in October 2019 – into an area in which it has developed a foothold. And it is just as keen to assert its influence in Syria’s north-west, where about 4 million people, many of them exiled from elsewhere in the country, remain crammed into Idlib province, which now resembles the world’s largest shantytown.
Idlib’s residents have been at the mercy of global powers for much of the past decade, but increasingly so lately as Russia attempts to diminish Turkish influence in the province and restore Assad’s tutelage to a crucial corner of the country that remains outside his control.
Last week Russia used its veto power at the United Nations security council to reduce the timeframe for cross-border aid supplies from Turkey to opposition areas from a year to six months.
The vote followed fervent lobbying to end aid deliveries altogether – a move that aid groups fear may become inevitable as Syria becomes entrenched as the conflict that was, while fatigued global diplomatic efforts continue to grapple with Ukraine.
As has been the case for at least the past five years, the future of Syria is being spoken about without the presence of Assad, whom Putin has regularly reminded only remains in his presidential palace because of his backing.
What now for Syria remains as vexed a question as ever. Before the summit, Erdoğan tabled his readiness to block the admission of Finland and Sweden to Nato if he did not get what he wanted in Syria. Iran, too, has no interest in diluting its presence in a country that holds the key to its foreign policy projection.
Syria may be forgotten by many, but it remains a potent driver of world events.