Is the war in Syria finally coming to an end? Most of the country’s centres of population are under regime control and it may well be that the regime and its allies are closing in on Idlib province, the last significant rebel-controlled territory, for the kill. But will this be the final showdown? And will Syria, at some time in the not too distant future return to normal?
All of these are reasonable-sounding questions, yet none of them make sense in the context of the Syrian conflict. First of all, it is absurd to ask if Syria can return to normal, when it was never normal in the first place. While the violence of the last seven years has been horrifying, Syria has always been a violent society, a place where government coercion backed with force has long been the norm. This force was exerted behind closed doors by the secret police, and when this failed, in open repression, as happened when the Muslim Brotherhood were savagely repressed back in 1982.
The only thing has been different of late is the scale of the savagery. But the savagery was always there. Hence, as visitors to Syria before the war will remember, the hysterical expressions of loyalty to the regime. Every car had a sticker on it with a picture of Hafez Al-Assad and his two sons. When the alternative was an interview with the secret police, you could not scream your loyalty loudly enough.
Whatever is happening in Idlib, the idea that this war will end because one side will give up and sue for peace is illusory. Wars may have ended like that once upon a time, but not anymore. If the rebels are driven out of Idlib, they will simply go elsewhere. The regime paints the rebels as the paid mercenaries of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and there is a grain of truth in this. Guns for hire can find plenty of employment in the world today. We should be frightened that there is plenty of evidence that former fighters in Syria are now in our own country and seemingly at large. For these people jihad was always the most important thing; Syria was merely a convenient place to fight it. It is the nature of jihad that you can fight it almost anywhere. Are the jihadis sick of fighting? I doubt it rather.
What about the winners in this war? Have they really won? This too seems a ridiculous question, when one considers that so much of Syria now lies in ruins, including the once spectacular historical centre of Aleppo, one of the world’s oldest cities. The Syrian people have certainly not won. Has the regime? Have the regime’s backers gained anything?
The regime has bought time, just as it did in 1982. But the fact remains that the regime relies on Iranian troops, Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and Russian weapons. Hezbollah will always belong, one suspects, heart and soul to the regime, unless they are needed back home in Lebanon, but Russian and Iranian support must be shakier. Propping up Syria is an expensive business, and the Iranian regime cannot afford an open-ended commitment. There are continuing small signs that the regime in Iran is buckling under the strain. And Russian commitment may not be as stable as it looks. The fate of Bashar al Assad will be decided in Teheran and Moscow. He may yet spend his declining years in a villa in the Crimea.
None of this is any grounds for satisfaction or indeed hope. While there may well be an interval of relative calm in Syria, peace is a distant prospect. This must call into question all the diplomatic initiatives, of which there have been many, to try and broker some sort of solution. All have failed. This is not just the failure of the Americans, it is also the failure of the Vatican. The Vatican clearly has no leverage with Bashar al Assad, despite years of tolerating him; nor does it have any with Iran or with Russia, and this is despite the fact that the Vatican has been cultivating relations with all three for years, and in the case of Moscow and Teheran with great dedication.
But what is there to show for it? Did it mean one less barrel bomb? The only thing that grabbed the headlines was the empty gesture of making the Syrian nuncio a Cardinal. Indeed, not only did the Vatican’s diplomacy not stop a single barrel bomb, it is even possible, given their lack of strong condemnation of the regime’s tactics, and their open-door policy, that they gave Bashar al Assad something of a pass when it came to terrorising his own people, and thus enabled the terror. One is not suggesting that this is what they hoped for, but that their peace policy had the opposite effect to the one intended.
Vatican diplomacy has certainly failed in Syria and the Middle East in general. What has the Church secured from Iran or from Russia? And one might well ask about its interventions in Venezuela, Colombia and China. Wherever one looks, the picture is bleak.