MISSOURI / WASHINGTON: If 2020 was the year when cracks began to appear in the ranks of the Assad clan in power in Syria, 2021 was the year of determined attempts by the rulers to tighten their grip and reclaim their legitimacy.

Although several states have recently attempted to bring the regime back into the Arab fold, even opting for the reopening of their embassies in Damascus, the dependence of Syrian President Bashar Assad on his Russian and Iranian benefactors has only made grow.

Indeed, Russian President Vladimir Putin received Assad in Moscow in September for the first time since 2018, no doubt to help with the rehabilitation of his Syrian counterpart but also to reprimand Turkey and the United States for their continued involvement in Syria. .

Assad’s dependence on Russia and Iran is due in large part to the precarious state of the Syrian economy, the crippling effects of Western sanctions, the country’s diplomatic isolation, its military vulnerabilities, its de facto partition and the lack of popular support.

Syria is geographically fractured between regime-controlled areas, rebel resistance in the northwest, and Kurdish self-administration in the northeast, making the distribution of aid – especially COVID vaccines -19 – all the more difficult.

Russian, Turkish and American forces stationed in Syria have maintained a difficult standoff, with the cracks between their respective spheres of influence filled with mercenaries, traffickers and the increasingly emboldened remnants of Daesh.

Many Syrian cities are still in ruins and millions of citizens remain displaced, inside and out, often in precarious circumstances, too terrified to return home and face reprisals from the regime.

A September report by Amnesty International, titled “You are on your way to death,” documented a catalog of horrific violations committed by the regime against Syrians who were forced to return after seeking refuge in Europe.

A man evacuates a young bomb victim after an airstrike reported by regime forces and their allies in the extremist-held Syrian town of Maaret Al-Numan. (AFP / photo file)

The scale of the regime’s crimes was hammered out in November when Omar Alshogre, a 25-year-old former regime detainee and torture survivor, addressed a UN Security Council meeting on impunity prevailing in Syria and the need to ensure accountability.

“We have stronger evidence today than we had against the Nazis in Nuremberg,” Alshogre said. “(We) even know where the mass graves are. But still no international tribunal and no end to the ongoing massacres for civilians in Syria. “

A report released in September by the United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic concluded that thousands of detainees were subjected to “unimaginable suffering” during the war, including torture, death and violence sexual against women, girls and boys.

The conviction by a German court in Koblenz in February of former Syrian intelligence agent Eyad Al-Gharib to four and a half years in prison for complicity in crimes against humanity has been hailed as historic.

A Russian military police vehicle patrols the M4 motorway in the northeastern Syrian province of Hasakeh, on the border with Turkey, February 22, 2020 (AFP / File Photo)

However, few Syrians believe they will ever get justice for the abuses of the past decade, and they do not have much hope for an improvement in the humanitarian situation.

Indeed, in the last months of 2021, thousands of Syrians lined up at Damascus airport after paying thousands of dollars to a Belarusian travel agency to transport them to a remote wilderness on the border with the EU in the desperate hope of starting a new life.

“The situation in Syria is calmer now, but that doesn’t mean it’s better,” Asaad Hanna, a Syrian activist and refugee, told Arab News. “In the areas controlled by the regime, people live hand to mouth. They cannot meet their basic needs. The economy is collapsing and the currency is losing value.

“The Assad regime always stops anyone who complains, so the people who are suffering are leaving the country. Imagine: since 2011, those who complete their studies have either joined the army or have left the country.

A fireball erupts from the site of an explosion that allegedly targeted a joint Turkish-Russian patrol on the strategic M4 highway, near the Syrian town of Ariha. (AFP / photo file)

In Hanna’s opinion, the country is following the path of other international outcasts.

“With increasing poverty, 10 years of destruction, Syria is getting the kind of stability North Korea has,” he added.

In northwestern Syria, across the line between the Assad regime and the last remaining rebels, 2021 has been another year filled with tragedy, as schools, hospitals and even IDP camps have been the target of air and artillery attacks.

Mousa Zidane, who works for the rebel-affiliated Syrian civil defense, also known as the White Helmets, said 2021 was a difficult year for first responders.

“The bombings and the deaths continued despite the ceasefire decision,” he told Arab News. “The coronavirus has invaded camps for internally displaced persons (internally displaced persons) and towns in Syria. The burden for us was great.

A displaced Syrian child, one of the thousands who fled their homes in the countryside of Raqa and Deir Ezzor, carries a bag of recyclable waste. (AFP / photo file)

“On top of all this, the regime and Russia’s attacks on us continued. Three of my colleagues in the White Helmets died as a result of direct attacks targeting our teams during their humanitarian missions, and more than 14 other volunteers were injured.

The almost daily bombardment of rebel-held areas has drained public morale, Zidane said, leaving little hope for change this year.

“Although we have always looked for hope, we doubt that the coming year will be better for Syrians,” he said. “But we are not losing hope in ourselves and we are not losing hope in the true friends of Syria and the Syrians. We will continue our work and our legitimate demands.

Like many Syrians, Hanna believes the Assad regime is unlikely to ever be brought to justice for the murder of protesters, the bombing of civilian areas, the torture and murder of opponents, or the alleged use of chemical weapons.

White helmets in Idleb. (Twitter: @syriacivildef)

“Obviously, the international community is not interested in launching an accountability trail at the moment, but that doesn’t mean we have to stop. This gives us more responsibility to continue to demand justice and accountability for the Syrian people. “

Hanna fears that the Biden administration’s openness to easing sanctions against the regime and recent diplomatic overtures from Arab countries mean that international pressure for regime change in Syria is all but over. Indeed, Damascus could very well find its seat in the Arab League.

“I only see this thanks to the new Democratic administration in the United States,” Hanna said. “The precedent was clear on the lack of relations with the Assad regime. But now we see the Biden administration softening its stance on anything Iranian-related.

Of course, almost everything in Syria remains tied to Iran. The militias armed and funded by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps continue to consolidate their hold over large swathes of the country.

A man stands at the entrance to a barber shop next to a portrait of Syrian President Bashar Assad in the capital Damascus on December 15, 2021 (AFP)

A long-standing alliance between Tehran and Damascus allowed Iran to use Syria to expand its regional influence and smuggle advanced munitions. Lebanese Hezbollah, another Iranian proxy, also played a decisive role in preventing a rebel victory over the ailing Assad regime.

Iran’s exploitation of Syria has caught the attention of Israel, which increasingly disagrees with Washington’s more conciliatory approach to Tehran.

In December, Israel twice attacked suspected Iranian arms shipments in the Syrian regime’s port in Latakia. The coming months could see many more unilateral Israeli strikes targeting Iran’s regional interests.

Despite the suffering, setbacks and grim expectations for 2022, activists like Hanna remain rebellious.

“For me, personally, I don’t see this as a job; it has become a way of life, ”he said. “As long as this continues, we will continue to support what we took to the streets for in 2011.”


* David Romano is Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle Eastern Politics at Missouri State University

* Oubai Shahbandar is a former defense intelligence officer and Middle East analyst at the Pentagon