In August, Darayya, the suburb of Damascus noted for its peaceful protests at the beginning of the 2011 revolution, surrendered following a four-year siege. The Syrian regime is now focusing on crushing the remaining pockets of rebel areas in Homs and Damascus.
Meanwhile its siege of Aleppo, briefly broken by a rebel offensive, has been reinforced by air strikes from Russian warplanes, while the mainly foreign mercenaries sent by Iran choke off land routes used by Aleppo residents to bring in desperately needed supplies. The tens of thousands of people trapped in rebel held eastern Aleppo are at the mercy of the regime and its allies. The Russian air strikes, temporarily launched from bases in Iran, have been unrelenting. Hospitals have become the main target, alongside indiscriminate bombardments of residential areas.
The tragic surrender of Darayya was overshadowed by the Turkish invasion of the north that aimed at halting Kurdish attempts to set up an autonomous region along Turkey’s southern border. Turkey — alongside Russia, Iran, Lebanon’s Hizbollah and the US — has been drawn deeper into the Syrian quagmire. While US special forces have been operating alongside their Arab and Kurdish allies and Turkish troops, Russian troops are appearing in larger numbers to shore up a Syrian regime that has run out of manpower.
Turkish backed groups, supported by its tanks and warplanes, are fighting the Kurdish PYD (affiliated to the self-declared Marxist PKK) over territory abandoned by ISIS. Turkey is adamant that it will not accept a Kurdish autonomous area in northern Syria. In a move that Recep Tayyip Erdogan describes as a temporary occupation, Turkey is carving out its own areas of influence.
The Turkish invasion has torn to shreds the US strategy to push back ISIS, which until recently controlled large swathes of the north. Up until the failed coup attempt in Turkey the two Nato allies held a common front against ISIS and the Syrian regime. Now Turkey has demanded that Kurdish forces allied to the US (known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, SDF) withdraw from the border area — the order was quickly passed on to the US’s Kurdish allies.
The chaos unleashed by foreign intervention has resulted in various elements of US supported forces fighting each other, localised battles pitting various Gulf-backed rebel groups against each other, and Kurdish groups in one area supporting the regime and in other areas fighting it.
Meanwhile the US is desperate to hammer out an agreement with Russia to target Jabha al-Nusra (now known as Jabha Fateh al-Sham) one of the most effective rebel organisations. The Islamist group, which is a genuine Syrian organisation that grew out of the revolution, made a symbolic break with Al Qaeda, and is in the process of forming a wider Islamist alliance in northern Syria. These rebel groups have themselves become trapped by Sunni sectarianism.
The alliance can still wield an effective fighting force in the north, but it is unable to break the siege of Aleppo, or reach out to those trapped in regime areas. The US considered Nusra an enemy as dangerous as ISIS, despite the organisations being deadly rivals, and it has been targeted by US warplanes in increasingly crowded skies. Meanwhile Turkey is mending its relations with Russia and Iran, and softening its opposition to the Syrian regime.
The fight against ISIS has now been stripped of the anti-terrorist rhetoric, and has become an open battle to grab territory as both the rebellion and the regime continue to disintegrate. The latest events reveal the complexities of a civil war that has become dominated by foreign forces. The surrender of Darayya and the sieges of the remaining rebel areas point to a bleak future. A revolution that promised so much has been drowned in blood.
The only guarantee is that more foreign intervention can only accelerate this disintegration.