SYRIAN REQUIEM: The Syrian Civil War, 2011-2018
Itamar Rabinovich & Carmit Valensi
Nonfiction, Princeton University Press, 2021
The Syrian civil war, or Syrian crisis as it is sometimes called, has been the major event of the current decade in the Middle East and an important development in the global arena. Horrific footage of ISIS blowing up priceless antiquities in Palmyra, dead bodies of Syrian refugees washed ashore in Southern Europe, Angela Markel's poor performance in the latest German elections and Vladimir Putin's triumphal visit to his Syrian air base in December 2017 are but some of the manifestations of the significance of the Syrian crisis and its ramifications. Most recently, Iran's role in the Syrian crisis has figured prominently in what could become the most important development in the Middle East – the eruption of anti-regime demonstrations in Iran. One of the main complaints raised by the demonstrators against the regime is the investment it has been making in Syria at the expense of the Iranian population.
The Syria crisis has unfolded on three levels: a domestic civil war, the focal point of regional rivalries in the Middle East and an important issue in the renewed Russian-American cold war. It took the lives of half a million Syrians and turned ten million Syrians into refugees, six millions in their own country and four millions outside its borders; it has served as the focal point of the Sunni-Shiite or Saudi-Iranian rivalry in the Middle East, it played a crucial role in the rise of ISIS as a global terrorist organization; The flow of Syrian refugees had a destabilizing effect on European politics and Washington's reluctance to play a more assertive role in it created a vacuum that Putin excelled in exploiting. A fresh reading of Barack Obama's apologetic interview to The Atlantic will readily show the significance of the Syrian issue in his foreign policy (and in a different, evolving way, for the Trump Administration). In the Arab world the Syrian crisis affected and signified the transition from the brief Arab Spring into the current Arab Winter.
The Syrian crisis is not over yet, but it has now reached a point from which it can be viewed with some perspective. As matters stand now, the victors are Bashar al-Asad who managed to survive in power (though as a Russian and Iranian vassal) and Russia and Iran, who are Syria's new masters. Putin managed to restore much of the Soviet Union's position and influence in the Middle East and is in possession of naval and air bases in Syria. Iran saved the throne of its Syrian protégé, protected and reinforced the position of its Lebanese proxy, Hizballah, and is close to building a land bridge to the Mediterranean. These exploits, however, are threatened by the current demonstrations in Iran and the Iranian population's manifest refusal to fray the cost of its leadership's ambitious regional policy. The apparent victors' achievements are tenuous and fragile; it will take time for Syria to become a unified country in control of its full territory and Asad may never become a legitimate ruler of Syria, and the potential for external meddling and a resumption of violence is considerable. And yet the full-fledged civil war and crisis of the six years separating March 2011 from early 2018 is over.
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