10 years of war in Syria: what changed

10 years of war in Syria: what changed

As Syria's deadly civil war marks a grim 10-year milestone, Russia is opening the door for potential cooperation with a new U.S. administration struggling to reorient after a series of mission shifts has left Washington outpaced by other foreign powers active in the country, Newsweek writes. "There is an urgent need for the international community to put aside politically motivated aspirations and join efforts to help the Syrians rebuild their country heavily damaged by the war," the Russian embassy in Washington told Newsweek. "There is always room for cooperation between Russia and the U.S. in Syria."

To do so would necessitate overcoming a rivalry that dates back to the Cold War and remains rife with bad blood over opposing interests and dueling accusations of wrongdoing at home and across the globe. Washington and Moscow have previously found common ground in Syria in the multinational battle against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), which the two powers fought as part of separate campaigns. Advancing any joint efforts today, however, would mean identifying additional areas of mutual understanding.

Moscow sees three. "We would only welcome collaboration with Washington in providing humanitarian assistance to those in need, countering terrorism and pushing forward political process with a common goal to achieve peace," the Russian embassy said.

It would also entail reconsidering the approaches pursued by Biden's predecessors, who sought to leverage U.S. economic and military pressure against the Syrian government and its longtime leader, President Bashar al-Assad, in response to widespread war crimes allegations.

Moscow sees these punitive actions as merely adding to the miseries of everyday Syrians while undermining the sovereignty of a nation suffering from conflict, financial crisis and COVID-19. "We sincerely hope that the new administration will try to rethink previous strategies on Syria," the embassy said. "It is important to cease the cruel sanction campaign against the Syrian people and put an end to illegal military presence in the Arab Republic."

After the beginning of the Syrian conflict scores of loosely affiliated rebel groups began to emerge, some backed by the U.S. and its regional partners, and some with close ties to jihadi ideologies that would consume the insurrection, especially with the rise of ISIS in 2013. With ISIS gaining ground across half of Syria and a third of neighboring Iraq, another Middle East power stepped in: Iran. Tehran doubled down on support for its longtime ally in Damascus in 2014, in part through the mobilization of militias originating from Lebanon to Pakistan, and also shored up paramilitary forces against ISIS in Iraq.

The U.S. launched an anti-ISIS military coalition in both countries that same year, and in 2015 teamed up with a new non-state faction on the ground in Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces, a group comprised of mostly Kurdish fighters. Around this same, Russia staged a direct military intervention in Syria.

Today, Syria is divided among rival factions. The government controls up to two-thirds of the country as well as the lion's share of its population. The Syrian Democratic Forces run much of the northeast.

Damascus has joined Moscow in calling for the new U.S. leader to adopt a new approach to the conflict, one which diverges from the paths taken by his predecessors. Syria has specifically requested that Biden abandon policies "aimed at destabilizing the security and stability of Syria through acts of aggression, occupation, utilizing terrorism, sponsoring separatist proxy militias in northeastern Syria, looting cultural property, oil, and gas, in addition to imposing unilateral coercive measures that have catastrophic impacts on the daily life of millions of Syrians."

Russia has taken the lead alongside Iran and Turkey in seeking to end Syria's conflict through international dialogue and mediation. The three have established themselves as guarantors of Syria's beleaguered peace process, a track guided by the unanimously passed U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254, which calls for ceasefire, negotiations and political settlement.

Under the Biden administration, a State Department spokesperson told Newsweek last month that the U.S. "is committed to a political settlement in line with UNSCR 2254 to end the conflict in Syria, in close consultation with our allies, partners, and the U.N."

But this settlement, as envisioned by Washington, appeared to involve consequences for Assad and his government over their alleged wrongdoings. The U.S. spokesperson said the administration "would use the tools at our disposal, including economic pressure, to push for meaningful reform and accountability for the Assad regime."

The 22-member Arab League that suspended Syria's participation in late 2011 may be closer than ever to restoring Damascus' seat at the table. The top diplomat of Saudi Arabia, arguably the most influential single nation of the grouping and an outspoken critic of Assad, recently spoke in favor of Syria's return, a development that comes amid concerns over the level of influence held by non-Arab nations like Iran and Turkey. The remarks came amid Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's tour of the region. Lavrov also stopped in the United Arab Emirates, whose foreign minister joined the call for the easing of international pressure against the Syrian government just a day earlier.

U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen issued virtual remarks in which he described a "fragile calm" that has recently gripped the embattled country, potentially allowing for a fresh diplomatic push among the international community. He said this new format "will have to involve, one way or the other, the United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Arab States and the European Union" as well as all permanent members of the Security Council, which also includes China, France, Germany and the U.K. But, for now, the ball appeared to be in Washington's court. And Pedersen warned no one country would be able to set the rules of play moving forward.

"As you know it is still early days for the Biden administration, and we will also need a more in-depth discussion with the Biden administration and then with the other interlocutors that I just mentioned to you now," Pedersen said. "But I think the key for me is that it is now necessary for all these actors to seriously sit down and develop a Syrian policy based on the understanding that none of them can dictate the outcome of the Syrian conflict," he added.

One Syrian source with whom Newsweek spoke on the condition of anonymity expressed desperation as to what appeared to be a lack of urgency on the part of the U.S. to address the ongoing war. As of now, however, the Syrian source noted that "Russia is doing the heavy lifting in talks with the leading Arabs, Turkey and Iran, and, at the same time, the solution will be utilized to cross the issues between Iran and the U.S.," which continue to feud over the latter's unilateral exit from a nuclear deal in 2018.