Winners and Losers in 5 Years of Syrian Civil War

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Five years ago this week, protests began in Damascus and Deraa (mainly Deraa) in Syria, on the heels of the overthrow of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt.

Syria’s government was even more repressive than those of the other two countries, however, much more of a Stalinist state on the old Soviet model. That it was dominated at the top by members of the Shiite Alawite sect (some 10-14% of Syria’s population) made it difficult for the regime to compromise, since it feared reprisals and marginalization if it did not maintain control.

A half-decade later, Syria is a basket case and its social statistics look like those of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Half of the 22 million Syrians are now homeless, and some 450,000 alleged to have been killed. That statistic, if true, whould suggest 1.5 million wounded. Most of the dead are young men, which is to say, young fathers, who left behind wives and orphaned children in an ever-married society where the father is central to the family’s welfare. Large swathes of Syria are controlled by an al-Qaeda affiliate, the Support Front, which reports to 9/11 mastermind Ayman al-Zawahiri. Other large swathes are ruled by a so-called caliphate. No one could have imagined this fate for Syria in 2010.

There aren’t really any winners in this war, which have crippled a major nation. But if we put on our objective analysts’ hats, who are the relative winners and losers?

As we speak, Iran is a winner in this conflict They did not want to see one of their few Arab allies overthrown. Their intervention has kept the Damascus government in place and preserved their land bridge through Iraq for supplies to Lebanon’s Hizbullah.

Turkey is a loser. President Tayyip Erdogan had tried to cultivate Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad before 2011, on the basis of the doctrine of ‘no troubles with neighbors.’ Once the civil war broke out, Turkey strongly allied with the rebels. But Turkish aid has not so far produced a victory. Now, the radicalism winked at by Turkey among the rebels is blowing back on that country. Bombings by Syria-related groups have deeply damaged Turkish tourism in the past 8 months.

Russia is a winner. It only came into the war in a big way in October of last year. But so far at least, Moscow is having its way. Russia has helped the regime survive, and has asserted Syria as a Russian sphere of influence. After the sanctions and isolation produced by Putin’s intervention in Ukraine, by 2015 Russia was privately getting kudos from Western powers like France, which feared Daesh more than it did a Russian sphere of influence in Syria.

The people of Homs and Aleppo are losers, having seen much of their cities destroyed by fighting between rebels (some of them radical) and the regime.

The Kurds of the northeast are winners. The YPG or people’s protection units has emerged as a Pentagon favorite because it is among the best fighting forces willing to take on the al-Assad government. Whereas Kurds were stripped of citizenship in 1963 by Arab nationalists, now everyone wants them on their side.

The people of Raqqa and Deir al-Zor provinces are losers, since they ended up under the brutal rule of the Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) gang.

Damascus is a relative winner, since the city itself never went to civil war, though outlying neighborhoods did. Some 5 million people now live in the capital or its vicinity.

The people of Idlib in the northwest are losers, since they came under hard line Salafi rule, and some of them are under al-Qaeda. Some of the villages ruled by al-Qaeda are Druze, whom Daesh considers heretics, and whom it has mistreated.

The Alawites of Latakia are winners, since their province so far has not fallen to the Sunni guerrillas.

The US Pentagon is a loser, since its program to train moderate Free Syrian Army elements crashed and burned.

But, as I said, there really are no winners in this horrible conflict. In some ways the bigget losers were the UN and the European Union, both of which demonstrated that this sort of humanitarian and security crisis is beyond their ability or perhaps interest to resolve.


Related video:

BBC News: “Syria: 5 year milestone since protests lead to civil war – BBC News”

Posted in Featured,Syria | 17 Responses | Print |

17 Responses

  1. What about Saudi Arabia? Not sure if they’re winners, but for some reason I don’t believe they’re losers either…

  2. I read a WIkileaks report showing that at least as far back as 2006, five years before the 2011 protests, that the USA was secretly, or at least to the American people, trying to undermine and overthrow Assad. They spread rumors, they tried to stop foreign investment when the drought stricken country desperately needed it, they funneled money to help create opposition forces, etc. I also remember then when the son took power that he was regarded for a while as a reformer. My question is – To what degree do you think that the USA is responsible for the civil war itself; and separately, assuming Assad knew about the attempts to undermine and overthrow him by the USA, to what degree did that contribute to his over reaction to the initial protests. I say all of this accepting that Assad is a dictator, but recognize that attempting to overthrow a dictator is extremely risky business, with extreme potential for widespread negative consequences.

    • “….at least as far back as 2006…the USA was secretly… trying to undermine and overthrow Assad…..”

      Yes, however this did not occur in a vacuum.

      The impetus behind the Bush administration decision to use covert means to destabilize the Baathists in Damascus was the perceived role of Syrian intelligence services in the killing of Lebanon’s prime minister Rafik Hariri.

      • …And when the Bush Administration says one thing for its reasons, and something completely different and out of control happens, you still believe them?

  3. Will the Saudi’s unleash their unholy sectarian frenzy in Lebanon, as they have Syria, other places? That would make Lebanon and the world a big loser.

  4. Two or three years ago I wrote that the U.S. and its allies should take control of the airspace over Syria. That would mean destroying the Syrian air forces and air defense capability. It would have stopped the use of Syrian air power (barrel bombs etc.) against rebel fighters that we hoped would win the day in ground warfare we didn’t want to engage in – and still don’t, and should not. We could have used our air advantage to attack Syrian tank columns, artillery and other military targets that could be reached away from the civilian population. Our rebel forces would have a chance then against Syrian ground forces. Now Russia has joined the fray with their air force and the risk of doing what I suggested is much greater. But I wonder if Russia would persist if we and our allies drew a line in the sand saying “pull your forces back or they will be attacked as well.” I think we and Nato have the capability of doing this – but, sadly, it doesn’t appear we have the resolve to do it.

    • The present state of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya show NATO interventions do not necessarily lead to stable and peaceful democracies.

  5. If we are going to be objective you need to add a few more.


    Assad. Five years of foreign backed insurgency and he is still in charge. He escaped the fate of Saddam and Gaddafi.

    Syrian Arab Army. Didn’t crack under pressure while the US trained Iraqi forces ran while facing DAESH and left billions of military equipment to be captured

    Putin. Outmanoeuvred Obama twice, first over chemical weapons and then waiting until US failure before decisively intervening.

    Great Britain. After lining up for the last two imperial adventures, declined military involvement in Syria.


    US State Department and Intelligence services. Billions of monitored conversations failed to understand effective moderate forces were little more than wishful thinking. Unable to understand impact of interventions in the MidEast.

    Obama/ Clinton. Told the world many times ‘Assad must go” and then quietly backed down.

    France. Plenty of bluster over its former colony,turns out to be a military lightweight.

    • Oh, Assad’s toast. The one thing everyone in Syria agrees on is that Assad caused all the problems by his incompetent reaction to the initial protests — they can see the much more intelligent reaction taken by other dictators.

      The best thing for the Alawite leadership to do is to quietly maneuver Assad out and put in a different strongman. I still expect them to do it.

  6. Juan Cole has forgotten a very big loser

    The Palestinians They have been removed from the good books of all parties, Assad’s , the Saudis and the Iranians and they were caught in the cross fire and suffered humiliation

  7. Basically millions of Muslim people( and others ) around the world want major changes in the repressive and corrupt political administration of Muslim nations. Massive changes in the regimes. No denying

    We want more of God conscious ISLAMISTS to become political leaders of Muslim nations

    But trying to bring this about by violent peoples’ movement (or some sort of revolution as of Iran 1979) has proved to be a terribly wrong idea as we have seen in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan , Syria, Egypt, Tunisia and so on

    Look at those nations. More sufferings and the loss of lives of tens of thousands of people and millions becoming refugees, more inter-tribal and sectarian killings

    Does it mean that we better allow the repressive regimes to continue?

    I would say YES and YES once again, the option is lesser of the evils

    I would say that we have to be patient, pray hard and should not try to create anarchy, confusion, violence, massive civilian deaths and sufferings in Muslim societies (or others) for the sake of political power.

    There are hard lessons for the Muslims from these tragedies. A sort of Unity ( example as it was existing in Syria five years ago) is far better than the terrible losses and tragedies

    Let us wait until One God Almighty Bring about a change in leadership believing the following verse of the Quran

    Quran 3: 26

    Say, “O God , Owner of Sovereignty,
    You give sovereignty to whom You will and
    You take sovereignty away from whom You will.
    You honor whom You will and You humble whom You will.
    In Your hand is [all] good. Indeed, You are over all things competent.”

    • Not everyone wants Islamists in power and they’ve been part of the problem in the East. Iraq and Afghanistan were not revolutionary people’s movements, and the new democratic Tunisia, with the help of protests, sacrifice and compromise, is a success story despite some challenges. People don’t need to settle for a false choice of security under oppressive regimes. Praying alone will not bring about any change from tyranny.

      • Morocco has had a very successful and smooth liberalization thanks to the King being *smart*.

        It’s now a consitutional monarchy like 18th-century or early 19th-century UK (where the King still has real power, but must listen to parliament).

        Assad is an idiot. He could have done essentially the same thing; he chose not to and wrecked his country because of it.

    • Oh stop it. Leave imaginary ‘gods’ out of it. There is o such construct, they are all invented rationalizations for oppression. And you certainly can’t pretend that ‘unity’ among people who think “god” is going to solve tribal power games will achieve anything. Grow up and stop quoting medieval nonsense. This is a real world, not your Disney one. Though muslims and jews and hindus certainly like playing ‘god’ games again, don’t they? especially ones where they hide, cover up and then kill women. It’s some bizarre alternate world of game of thrones, with male blood lust erasing all possibilities of civilization. nothing to do with ‘god’, even in Disneyland.

  8. Netanyahu might be regarded a winner since the what is happening up there serves to divert attention from his ongoing, purposeful theft of Palestine.

    • I would agree, since all the frontline states whose national armies posed a threat to Israel are now either failed states, or seriously challenged states. Even distant potential challengers, such as Iraq and Iran are undergoing challenging times.

  9. What about Israel? A big winner. Don´t forget Yinon Plan. Soon We´ll hear about big troubles in Lebanon, courtesy of Saudi & Zionist Alliance…

Comments are closed.