Syria is positioned to return to the geopolitical fold in the Arab world, but the political structure inside the country is still fractured, facing protests from its citizens and the need to call in the Russian air force and Iranian backers.
PARIS — When a country drops off from the news radar, it doesn't necessarily mean that all is fine. Syria made headlines for years with the brutal repression of the 2011 uprising and the war against the Islamic State; nowadays, it's hardly mentioned anymore, even if the state of the country is still dire.
Yet over the past few weeks, a new rumbling of reports about the Syrian situation has begun. In the southern part of the country, major demonstrations began in the city of Suweida, initially against rising fuel prices before evolving into more political protests. The protests spread to the city of Daraa, where the 2011 revolution had originally begun, as well as other localities. Among the popular demands were questions about the fate of those who've disappeared over the last decade, a pressing issue for millions of Syrians.
Videos that have circulated show significant sized crowds, reminiscent of the scenes from the early days of the 2011 uprising during the "Arab Spring." Considering the repression that followed, it is impressive to once again see the population taking to the streets to defend their rights, facing a regime that has shown it will not hesitate to brutally suppress them.
Arab league comeback
Coincidentally or not, this resurgence of a protest movement coincides with Syria's gradual reintegration into the Arab world after a decade of isolation. Damascus has been readmitted to the Arab League and has re-established ties with the Gulf monarchies.
This is part of a geopolitical reshuffling.
The return of Syria is part of a regional geopolitical reshuffling, but does not signify a normalization of the situation within Syria itself. The country remains ravaged by the consequences of a decade of war and repression. Millions of refugees are still outside the country, and the conditions inside Syria for their eventual return and reconstruction of the economy are still a long ways away.
Additionally, the Syrian fractures are far from being resolved. Just look at the violent clashes taking place in the north between Kurdish militias and Sunni Arab fighters, ancient rivalries reignited. These clashes have claimed dozens of lives in recent days and have seen Russian airstrikes – yes, amidst the war in Ukraine, Russian fighter pilots continue to bomb Syria.
May 3, 2023, Damascus, Syria: Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad (R) shakes hands with his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi
There is hardly any change today. Bashar al-Assad's regime, with crucial support from Russia and Iran, has managed to retake most of the country, even though a rebel pocket survives in the northwest, and Kurdish militias control the northeast.
However, Assad has done nothing since securing his regime to appease, engage in political dialogue, or even open the door to reconciliation. In the tense context of the war in Ukraine, any breakthrough seems impossible.
What remains is the awakening of the population – the audacity to challenge Assad's rule. Yet, even here, hopes are slim. As Syrian dissident intellectual Yassine al-Haj Saleh explained to the Beirut-based newspaperL'Orient-le-Jour, "The military and ideological fragility of the Damascus regime is real, but it is protected by its backers."
Russian and Iranian support continue to be Assad's ultimate lifeline.