The Syrian regime’s capture of Palmyra, the historic Syrian city taken by ISIS last summer, has been hailed as a significant victory and a vindication of Russia’s intervention in Syria. In a deft manoeuvre Putin, a key ally of Assad, announced that he would scale back Russian military forces in Syria — a move designed to reduce tensions with Turkey and the West.
A limited truce between mainstream rebels and the regime, which was brokered by world powers, has released regime forces to capture Palmyra. This is a significant blow to ISIS, which is beginning to crack under the constant military offensives.
There is now a race between regime and Kurdish forces, along with Western backed Syrian rebels, to seize Raqqa, the defacto ISIS capital in Syria. Russian warplanes played a critical role in the Raqqa offensive, and are ready to go back into action if the truce breaks down. The truce is supposed to pave the way for peace talks between rebels and the regime, designed by Western powers to safeguard the regime — even if they disagree over the fate of Assad.
Russia’s goal is to secure its Mediterranean naval base; the US wants to stabilise the country and drive out the Islamist rebels who have emerged as powerful players inside the revolution. Despite their rivalries, both imperial powers are acting in concert to crush the Islamist movements. The talks are designed to hammer out a compromise that would secure the future of the regime.
In other significant developments the Syrian Kurdish PYD, which controls many of the Kurdish majority areas, has declared autonomy from the rest of Syria. This act, a longstanding demand of Kurds across the region, has raised tensions with Turkey, which is deeply opposed to Kurdish independence, and secured its alliance with the regime it once opposed. By tying itself to the regime, as well as allying itself with the US in eastern Syria and Russia in western Syria, the PYD has opened a breach in the unity between Arabs and Kurds that emerged during the revolution.
Many rebels are now accusing the Kurds of aiding the regime offensive against them in the strategically vital supply routes into rebel held areas of Aleppo. This break between mainstream rebels and Kurdish forces has its roots in the refusal of the Syrian opposition to recognise the right of Kurdish self-determination at the onset of the uprising.
A second significant fissure is emerging between mainstream rebels and Islamists in the areas where there is a partial truce. Jabha al-Nusra, the Islamist movement that became one of the most effective rebel formations, is attempting to dismantle the remaining popular councils that grew out of the uprising. Nusra, a movement which is rooted in the revolution, is attempting to position itself as the sole authority over rebel areas where it has a presence. This has put it on a collision course with other groups and the popular opposition.
Amid this maelstrom of war and factional fighting are small but significant signs that the popular opposition is re-emerging out of the rubble. The Friday protests, common during the first months of the revolution, are once again beginning to attract significant numbers. People have used the lull in the fighting to raise the original slogans of the revolution. Although these protests remain modest and face overwhelming odds, they are signs that the Arab Spring is once again finding its voice.
In Egypt strikes and protests are back. In Yemen millions have used a lull in Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign to return to the streets to demand an end to the war. And in a significant development, workers at an anti-austerity protest in Iran are beginning to give voice to deep unease over Iran’s intervention in the Syrian war. Demonstrators began to chant, “Get out of Syria, and think about the Iranian people instead.”
These flashes of Arab Spring show that despite the violence, war and repression, and machinations of rival imperial powers, the deep underlying causes of the revolutions remain unsolved and the revolutions unbowed.