Syria’s civil war of more than seven years began winding down in 2018 as government forces, supported by Russia, regained large swathes of the country’s territory from rebels backed by Western powers and militants.
The United States unexpectedly announced in December it had started withdrawing its forces from Syria, declaring the defeat of IS, in a move Russian leader Vladimir Putin called “correct.”
Does this mean the war is almost over? If President Bashar al Assad’s government wins, what does it mean for the future of the country and its opposition? And how will Syria rebuild?
Over 5.6 million people have fled Syria since 2011, according to the United Nations, and the government has called for them to return.
As of December, around 37,000 returning refugees had been verified for 2018, according to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR.
UNHCR expects up to 250,000 Syrians to return in 2019, including some of the one million children born outside the country, many of whom Assad’s government has said it will recognise as Syrian citizens. But for Abu Ahmed, who escaped with his family to Lebanon seven years ago, the idea of returning home seems a long way off.
“I do not see a quick return for us in the coming year, unless our return is protected and covered by the UN,” Ahmed, a gardener who is originally from near the city of Hama, said.
He said he had heard of people being arrested and executed after returning voluntarily to their homes in 2018.
“We have fears that the regime will not have mercy on us, especially if they think we left our land because we are against the rulers,” he said.
Russia’s Defence Ministry has said some 96.5 per cent of the country’s territory is now under the control of the Syrian government, but opposition politicians disagree that this means Assad has all but won the war, or that Syrians will be encouraged to go home.
“Anyone who thinks Assad has won is mistaken. Al Assad has lost since the beginning of the war, when he used his war power against his people,” Yehia Aridi, a member of the opposition delegation to the UN peace talks, said.
“A high percentage of the Syrian refugees who are now scattered across the world believe that the reasons that led them to leave their country are still there and are not gone: oppression, dictatorship, executions, arrests,” Aridi said.
To further complicate matters, Syria’s government has passed a law that paves the way for property to be confiscated if it is not claimed within a year.
This could create a “tremendous obstacle” for refugees who want to return as well as being a deterrent, UN aid envoy Jan Egeland hassaid.
Russia has pushed for Western nations to help fund the reconstruction of Syria, but the United States, Britain and France have repeatedly warned they will not offer financial aid without first seeing changes in the behaviour of the Syrian government.
Efforts to form a committee to redraft the country’s constitution have faltered, despite a last-ditch push by the UN’s outgoing special envoy Staffan de Mistura, who leaves his role on December 31, to finalise a balanced list of members.
So where does Syria stand now? Is the country heading back to square one under the leadership of Assad?
“The central problem in the whole Syria conflict has always been the Syrian authorities’ refusal to address the legitimate grievances of the Syrian people,” Britain’s UN ambassador Karen Pierce said.
The “powerhouses” who can influence Syria have come to a stalemate,said Mariam Jalabi, head of the opposition mission to the UN, a coalition of Syrian opposition groups. But she is certain that there is “no way for the regime to go back to the old days.” — DPA
Weedah Hamzah and Helen Corbett