The year 2015 was horrible year in Syria, but as the Syrian economist Jihad Yazighi noted when I interviewed him last month, this one does not look like it’s going to get any better. “Year 2016 will see Syrians poorer, living a more miserable life, and emigrating in higher numbers,” he said. Unfortunately, Mr. Yazighi has a great track record for predicting these things.
There’s little reason for hope, then—and I’m afraid that sort of gloom is what you have to expect on this Syria in Crisis. We’ve published nearly 250 articles since I took over as editor in September 2013. In the past year, they’ve steadily grown longer, but we’ve managed to hold an average pace of about one and a half per week, which made for a grand total of 78 pieces published in 2015. The vast majority were about Syria, but there have also been a few about the wider region, with a particular focus on politics in the neighboring Arab countries of Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan.
As the editor of Syria in Crisis, I’m responsible for most of the writing. If you’re just going to read one of my texts from 2015, I suggest this short piece, which will help get you in the proper mood.
But I cannot claim credit for some of my favorite texts during the year, including Yezid Sayigh’s explainer of how gas and oil pipelines affect the conduct of the war, Kheder Khaddour’s investigation of how President Bashar al-Assad has exploited his control over Syrian state institutions, or Maha Yahya’s and Maya Zreik’s commentary on the struggle of Lebanese volunteer workers to bring education to Syrian refugee children, not to mention this magnificent three-piece survey of the evolution of the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Libya, by Fred Wehrey and Ala’ al-Rababa’h.
We’ve also seen great articles from many other Carnegie scholars including Farea al-Muslimi on Yemen, Michele Dunne on Egypt, and Renad Mansour on Iraq. And I am just as grateful to Anouar Boukhars, Katie Bentivoglio, Lina Khatib, Hamza Meddeb, Marc Pierini, and last, but not least, Joseph Bahout.
Then there were the interviews. In 2015, I spoke at length to the rebel leader Subhi al-Refai, the French political geographer Fabrice Balanche, Tarif al-Sayyed Issa of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, the opposition’s European Union ambassador Mouaffaq Nyrabia, the expert on Syrian armed movements Charles Lister, the veteran leftist dissident Haytham Manna, and Dawn Chatty, who is a specialist on Syrian and Lebanese Bedouin tribes. I also did group interviews with Jihad Yazighi, Samer Abboud, David Butter, and José Ciro Martínez on the Syrian economy, and Raymond Hinnebusch, Charles Lister, Joshua Landis, and Rania Abouzeid on the chances of Syria’s peace process.
Thanks to all—and I hope I haven’t forgotten anyone!
In the next couple of months, we’re going to draw down the pace of publishing a little bit in order to reorganize the way Syria in Crisis works, while I take some time off to do other work. But I will still write occasionally, so don’t stop checking Syria in Crisis for news.
To ensure that you will stay well nourished with Syria analysis through the spring, here’s a list of the five most read pieces from 2015. Have a look in case you missed one, or if you ever feel too upbeat about the way things are going.
Editor of Syria in Crisis
September 23, 2015: By the time this text was written, it had become clear that Russia was positioning itself to launch a military intervention in Syria. Published a week before the airstrikes commenced, this text tried to figure out where Russian President Vladimir Putin would be likely to focus his attacks, how he would frame them politically, and how that would affect the wider conflict:
Blanket attacks on Syrian rebels on the pretext that they are all “al-Qaeda” would lead to much outraged commentary in the Western and Arab press. But to the Russian president it doesn’t matter if you think he’s Mad Vlad or Prudent Putin. He isn’t trying to win hearts and minds, least of all those of the Syrian rebels or their backers. Rather, he is trying to change the balance of power on the ground while firing missile after missile into the West’s political narrative.
Read the rest here.
November 24, 2015: In this one, the American-British Syria expert Charles Lister is interviewed about his new book on the Syrian jihadi movement, the state of the conflict and the upcoming peace talks, and his work as a negotiator with Syrian rebel groups. Lister warned of the role of the al-Qaeda-aligned Nusra Front inside the opposition, but said other Syrian rebels—including some hardline Islamists—are also increasingly concerned about it and are trying to stake out new political ground:
The Nusra Front has pursued a smart long-term strategy focused on embedding itself into the revolution and into opposition societies. In this way, it has built itself a protection blanket that the Islamic State never had. Due to its continued determination to fight the regime and the relative restraint of its sharia enforcement, compared to the Islamic State, the Nusra Front is still largely accepted by opposition forces as a legitimate part of the opposition.
My take is that the Nusra Front is a wolf in sheep’s clothing—Syrians should wake up to see who they are allowing to develop within their midst. Eventually, it’ll be too late, if it isn’t already. . . . Intriguingly, some experienced and prominent Syrian Islamists recognized this some time ago—some have been killed, some are working to undermine the Nusra Front’s influence within Syria’s youth, and others are quietly preparing the ground for a potential fight with al-Qaeda one day down the line.
Read the rest here.
October 2, 2015: After the first few days of Russian airstrikes in Syria, which began on September 30, I took a shot at evaluating their significance and the political messaging accompanying the intervention. It’s best read as a follow-up to the year’s most-read piece from a week earlier.
Unsurprisingly, it turned out that Russian Air Force wasn’t attacking the people that the Russian Ministry of Defense said it would be attacking:
After only three days of strikes, we can hardly sketch a clear pattern and must not jump to conclusions. But it should be obvious that the Kremlin is in no way limiting its offensive to the Islamic State. Quite the contrary, most attacks so far seem to have targeted other groups and despite its antiterror rhetoric, the Russian government appears to be primarily concerned with bolstering its ally, Assad. If that is the goal, it will require taking on a wide array of other rebel factions.
In Moscow’s view, these are not contradictory goals. By propping up Assad, the Russians argue, they are empowering a ground force able to shield what remains of the Syrian state and to block Islamic State advances into western and southern Syria. The United States takes the opposite view, saying that Assad cannot be a partner—or at least not their partner—because he is a war criminal and because such an alliance would ruin relations with the Sunni Arab factions needed to build a sustainable alternative to the Islamic State. But Putin is likely to shrug off these objections, as he has done for four years.
Read the rest here.
November 10, 2015: This was another text on the results of the Russian intervention. It takes a look at Assad’s performance on the front where he actually is fighting the Islamic State. Near the Kweiris airport, many different factions are battling for control over the city of Aleppo and the roads that could help them choke off supplies going to their rivals.
With American- and Turkish-backed rebels fighting the Islamic State north of Aleppo and Assad attacking it to the south (now also the Kurds to the east), the politics of this region seemed to be slowly changing in ways that neither side could fully control. Ultimately, however, these changes seemed likely to aid Russian attempts to legitimize Assad as a force in the struggle against the Islamic State:
The interlinked nature of the battles against the Islamic State in the Aleppo region is not something that either Assad or the rebels will be eager to recognize, since their ultimate goal is to eradicate the other. Neither will the United States want to publicly credit Russia with any advances against the jihadis. But in the long run, should such an unspoken interdependence really develop, it could create some really interesting American-Russian and regime-rebel synergies in northern Syria. And that is, of course, exactly what Russia is looking for.
Read the rest here.
May 13, 2015: Between March and May 2015, Bashar al-Assad’s exhausted army lost the northern cities of Idlib and Jisr al-Shughour to Islamist insurgents. The forces also incurred severe losses in southern Syria, while murky internal feuds among Assad’s top commanders resulted in the death of the powerful Political Security Director Rustum Ghazaleh.
At that point, many seemed ready to count Assad out. The opposition was jubilant, and there was an outpouring of articles and analysis about how the Syrian regime seemed to be crumbling. Although Assad was clearly in a lot of trouble, I didn’t think that line of reasoning was necessarily true, because he still had a lot going for him:
However, let us not forget why Assad did not just lose the war in 2011: he has a significant base of support inside the territories still under his control, he is not being invaded by a stronger army, and his many opponents are too divided to function effectively. Even as the rebels grow stronger and he grows weaker, there are limits to how far they can chase Assad before they stumble over their own internal problems or run up against international objections.
In addition, the government has over the past year secured Homs and several key Damascus suburbs. These are areas of far greater strategic importance than Idlib or Jisr al-Shughour. No less important is the emerging albeit unspoken consensus in Western capitals since the summer of 2014 that Assad is a lesser evil than the Islamic State and that he should not, for the moment, be pushed past the breaking point.
As recently as February 26, 2015, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency declared that the war is “trending in the Assad regime’s favor.” In recent weeks, we have witnessed developments that have called this analysis into question—including the army’s territorial losses, reports of more assertive international backing for the rebels, and the Ghazaleh affair—but it was not unfounded. Assad remains the single strongest actor in the war, there are currently no signs that his allies are abandoning him, and the rebels remain too poorly organized to rule the country.
Read the rest here.