March 18, 2019
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Eight years later, what happened to the Syrian revolution?

Cairo, Mar 14 (efe-epa).- Almost exactly eight years ago, on Mar. 15, 2011, Syrians took to the streets as the country succumbed to contagious pro-democracy uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa in what came to be known as the Arab Spring.

They called on Bashar al-Assad, Syria's authoritarian leader, to stand down but he did not. Instead, his regime used violence to clamp down on the demonstrations.

Protesters and army defectors took up arms against the government under a loose banner, the Free Syrian Army, and soon any hope for a peaceful transition to democracy was snuffed out as the country plunged into a brutal and drawn-out civil war that has defined its modern history.

Eight years on, Assad remains in power, although his territorial grip has been somewhat dented.

– Has Assad won the war?

The Syrian leader, who inherited the presidency in 2000 when his father, Hafez al-Assad, last year reestablished control and raised the regime flag in a slew of towns and cities that were once a hotbed of the armed opposition militias thanks largely to military intervention from Russia, his main international ally.

In July 2018, Assad rook Daraa, a hotbed of popular protests in 2011 and one of the first major cities to fall to rebels. Around that time he recaptured Eastern Ghouta, another longstanding rebel enclave a stone's throw from the capital Damascus, the heart of regime power.

Russia's military intervention in 2015 put wind in Assad's sails. Having had his territorial control whittled down in the war's early years, now only several regions remain outside his grasp.

These include Idlib province, a stronghold of al-Qaida splinter groups and Turkish-backed FSA, as well as some countryside areas in Aleppo, Hama and Latakia provinces, all in the northwest, near the Turkish border.

Idlib and the northern Aleppo countryside were the scene of a largely frozen rebel offensive, suspended under a deal cracked with Ankara, Moscow and Tehran.

Other zones out of Assad's reach include the northeast and east of Syria, which are under the control of Kurdish militias and de facto governments. Kurdish-led militias have spearheaded the fight against the Islamic State terror organization in their patch and have expressed their desire to secure recognition as a Kurdish territory, similar to that across the border in Iraqi Kurdistan.

However, the Kurdish leadership and Assad have started to cooperate more in recent months as both fear the Turkish-backed FSA insurgents currently in control of northern Aleppo province were preparing to launch a major offensive to take the rest of northern Syria.

Ankara views the Kurdish militias as an extension of the PKK Kurdish guerrilla group in Turkey, which is regarded as a terror organization by the international community.

– How many people have fled the war so far? And how many people have died?

A total of 5,684,010 Syrians have fled the country, while another 6,200,000 were internally displaced, 2.5 million of which were children, according to the United Nations' refugee agency (ACNUR). In a country with a pre-war population of 22 million, this represents the largest internal displacement of people in the world, the agency added.

Death tolls vary, but according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a United Kingdom-based monitor, around 367,965 people have died as of Dec. 2018. Around 111,330 were civilians and 20,819 were minors, the SOHR added.

These figures did not account for 192,035 disappeared or dead the monitor could not identify, meaning the actual toll could be around half a million.

According to the UN's children agency, UNICEF, 1,106 children died in 2018 alone, the deadliest year for children in the war so far.

Amnesty International has accused Assad's regime of war crimes and grave violations of international humanitarian law, including the use of chemical weapons and direct attacks on civilians.

– What of the opposition?

At an international level, the Qatar-based National Coalition for the Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces and the Turkey-based Syrian National Council represent the diplomatic interests of the armed opposition, although their influence in shaping the war has been limited.

On the ground, the FSA has been reduced to territory in the northeast, where insurgents get training and military support from Turkey, and in the south, along the Jordanian border, where it collaborates with United States forces.

However, many of those who took up arms against the government since went on to join the ranks of powerful Islamist groups, such as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, the latest incarnation of the Nusra Front, al-Qaida's splinter group in Syria.

Jabhat Fatah al-Sham remained the dominant group in Idlib.

The IS, an extremist Islamist group dedicated to establishing a hardline Islamic State in the region, was on the brink of territorial defeat, having once laid claim to swathes of land stretching from Mosul, in Iraq, to Raqqa and Der Ezzor in Syria. Only its most diehard fighters were left in the town southeastern town of Baghuz, where US-backed Kurdish forces have launched a final offensive.

– Is there an end in sight?

All of the parties involved in the Syrian Civil War believe the only exit to the conflict is a political solution, which has remained elusive despite UN negotiations in Geneva and the so-called Astana talks, presided over by Russia, Turkey and Iran.

The UN has sought to create a transitional constitution in Syria, that would include the involvement of the opposition.

Any such deal seemed a long way off.

– Who are the international players in the conflict?

Russian aerial firepower brought Assad back from the brink of defeat to the brink of victory in the eight-year war. The Syrian leader, a member of the Alawite sect, also counts on the international backing of Iran, whose Shiite leadership has provided military support on the group.

Shiite militias from Iraq and Lebanon, including the powerful Hezbollah, help Assad's forces on the ground.

Syria's rebel groups were born largely from discontent in the Sunni community, which is a majority of the population.

The US initially focused its attention on equipping and arming the emergent FSA and backed regime change in Syria. In later years, however, it became the principal international backer of the Kurdish groups fighting against the IS.

Turkey has launched two major land invasions into northern Syria using FSA fighters as proxy militias to clear out Kurdish forces it regards as terrorist elements along its border.

It now holds considerable sway in Idlib province, where it coordinated with Russia ina frequently-breached ceasefire arrangement.

By Isaac J. Martín

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