Syria’s war is far from over

By Christopher Phillips in Middle East Eye, 10 January 2018

The year 2017 was a good one for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Islamic State’s (IS) “caliphate” was largely destroyed, squeezed by Syrian, Russian and Iranian forces on one side and by the American-backed Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on the other.

Assad’s mainstream rebel opponents were largely abandoned by their external backers and pummelled by his allies, leaving them in isolated pockets, divided and politically marginalised.

His position will likely be further boosted by the upcoming Russian-led “peace congress” in Sochi in late January, in which Moscow hopes to broker a deal that will bring in some Kurdish and opposition elements while ultimately leaving Assad in control.

However, even if Russia can reach some kind of viable agreement, many opposition groups are likely to remain excluded. Moreover, Moscow, Tehran and Damascus have been far from conciliatory over the past six years of war and few would be surprised if any agreement was ultimately undermined or ignored.

Far from over

Indeed, it seems likely that whatever happens in Sochi, Syria’s war is far from over. The local, regional and international dynamics at play suggest conflict will continue beyond 2018, even if Assad’s position is secure.

Firstly, Assad and his allies appear committed to militarily defeating the remnants of the rebels. The rebels, including a sizeable Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) presence, currently hold four main territories: Idlib province, Rastan near Homs, some suburbs around Damascus (notably Eastern Ghouta) and an area along the Jordanian and Israeli border in the south.

While these were declared “de-escalation zones” last year in Moscow-led agreements, in reality Assad, Iran and Russia have frequently broken these ceasefires. The truces allowed forces loyal to Assad a respite to direct their forces eastward as IS collapsed, reclaiming former “caliphate” territory and denying it to the US-aligned SDF.

Now that IS is largely gone, Assad and his allies are directing their elite troops back on the rebels.

Already January has begun with the Syrian government’s offensive in Idlib, with the apparent goal to cleave from the rebels the less populated eastern part of the province around Abu ad Duhur. This may be the preamble to a government push on Idlib city, though much will depend on whether Russia can obtain tacit agreement from Turkey, who would likely receive many refugees from the province, currently estimated to have a population of two million.

With the dominant force in Idlib being HTS, viewed as terrorists by Russia, the US and Turkey, and most of the other rebel groups there reluctant to engage at Sochi, correctly seeing it as submission to Assad, conflict at some point seems inevitable.

Capturing ‘every inch’

A similar fate probably awaits the other rebel pockets. Some, perhaps Rastan and parts of the south, may be persuaded to compromise with Assad, either via Sochi or later deals. But Assad, confident in his position, will likely target Eastern Ghouta in Damascus militarily, being the source of the last remaining rocket attacks on the capital.

The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that 417,000 Syrians remain living in besieged areas, the majority of them in the Ghouta region. Any military campaigns in Idlib and Ghouta then would likely be violent, take a heavy toll on lives and create yet more refugees.

Secondly, beyond the continued conflict with the rebels, the future relationship between Assad and the Kurds remains uncertain and could descend into violence. At present the SDF and Syrian government forces face each other on opposite banks of the Euphrates, while retaining isolated pockets in each other’s territory.

As long as the US patrols its skies, alongside 3,000 American special forces and 10 bases on the ground, the SDF will feel relatively secure from Assad, whose stated goal is to eventually recapture “every inch” of Syria.

However, despite assurances from the Pentagon of a prolonged US presence, the unpredictability of President Donald Trump, Washington’s recent unwillingness to prevent the fall of Kirkuk and the US’s historical tendency to sell out Kurdish interests has led many Syrian Kurds to be wary.

Assad and the Kurds

Consequently some expect the PYD, the Kurdish force that dominates the SDF and is attending Sochi in an unofficial capacity, to cut a deal with Assad via Russia. Surrendering the Arab-majority lands along the Euphrates in exchange for autonomy in the Kurdish-majority areas along the Turkish-Syrian border is one mooted option.

US forces would presumably have to leave all of Syria in such a scenario. However, even were Assad to accept such an agreement – and he has shown himself far from compliant to Russian requests in the past – his long-term commitment to it would remain questionable.

The PYD, being Kurdish nationalists, pose an ideological threat that Assad will not allow to thrive in northern Syria.

The Syrian government will most likely seek to undermine Kurdish autonomy, either through political machinations or violent re-conquest (possibly with Turkish acquiescence), once the PYD’s external backers have all left.

Finally, alongside the violence coming from within Syria is that from the outside. IS’s caliphate may have been defeated but its followers, both old and new, remain in Iraq and Syria and could yet set off low-level attacks and possibly even a renewed campaign.

Turkey remains sceptical of the PYD’s presence, being affiliated with the Turkish Kurdish separatists the PKK, along its border, and could yet move against outlying redoubts such as Afrin in Syria’s north.

Similarly Israel fears the Lebanese Hezbollah and Iranian presence in Syria as a result of the war and has already stepped up its attacks against military convoys in 2017. The long-awaited next round of the Israel-Hezbollah conflict may this time be fought in Syria as well as Lebanon.

Assad therefore may have reasons to be cheerful, having survived the civil war launched to topple him. Whatever happens in Sochi this month, the Syrian dictator looks likely to remain as president. Yet the suffering for Syrians is far from over, and the conflict will evolve and continue in 2018 and possibly beyond.

Assad may have won, but peace likely remains elusive.


Syria after IS

‘Syria after IS’

by Christopher Phillips in Orient IV/2007

Three years after Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his ‘Caliphate’, the so-called Islamic State (IS) appears in terminal decline. Its territory, which once stretched from the Syrian-Turkish border to the outskirts of Kirkuk and Baghdad, has been gradually cleaved. In Syria, the US-sponsored Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of militia dominated by the Kurdish Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat or Democratic Union Party (PYD), have taken huge swathes of northern Syria back from IS and besieged the Caliphate’s capital, Raqqa. Independently of this, forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, backed by allies Russia and Iran, charged back into central Syria in spring-summer 2017, retaking Palmyra and reaching the provincial capital of Deir-Es-Zour. Though IS forces remain in Syria’s east along the Euphrates into Iraq, their long-term survival seems unlikely and the days of the Caliphate being a major player in the Syrian civil war appear over.

Neither Assad, the SDF, nor their international backers will take the task of finishing IS off for granted, but inevitably thoughts are turning to what happens next and what IS’ decline means for the Syria conflict. Both Russia and the US justified entering the Syria war as a means to defeat IS; will either or both remain even after it is gone? More significantly, how will their two Syrian allies, Assad and the SDF, now facing each other either side of the Euphrates, respond? Could local or international factors prompt a new conflict in former IS territory between the two victors or is some form of compromise on the cards? Moreover, does IS’ territorial defeat actually mean its complete removal from the Syrian war, or might remnants and supporters continue to be a thorn in both Assad and the Kurds’ side? This article will explore these key domestic and international questions emerging from IS’ decline in Syria. By considering the conflicting goals and priorities of the two main Syrian forces and their external backers, as well as the remnants of IS, it will argue that though the Caliphate may have been defeated, new conflicts and instability may yet emerge from the fallout…

Full version available at Orient. Draft available here.


Jordan’s smart Syria strategy

By Christopher Phillips

Middle East Eye, 24 June 2017

Jordan has maintained a cautious policy towards the Syrian civil war – by largely avoiding the violence that has spilled over into neighbouring states, it’s a strategy that’s paid off

Is Jordan about to invade Syria? That was the speculation following the unprecedentedly large “Eager Lion” joint military exercise with the US and other international partners in Amman in May.

This, alongside an exchange of insults with Damascus and increased tension between US and Iranian proxies near Syria’s al-Tanf, prompted speculation that, as part of Trump’s more aggressive line with Bashar al-Assad and Iran, his Hashemite ally might open a new front in Syria’s south.

Jordan was swift to deny this, and with good reason: it would mean the total abandonment of its cautious policy towards the Syrian civil war.

Jordan has played a smarter hand than most of Syria’s neighbours to insulate itself from the six-year conflict’s fall out. The four neighbouring states with open borders before the war – Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon – all received vast numbers of refugees and saw trade plummet, but violence has spilt over too.

Iraq and Turkey have seen battles with the Islamic State (IS) group and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) re-open. Lebanon has seen sporadic fighting along its borderlands.

In contrast, while Jordan has faced IS terror attacks, it has largely been spared the fighting seen elsewhere.

Tight border control

Local conditions differ along the Syrian regions that neighbour each state, but how porous the border has been has impacted the extent of spill over.

Iraq and Lebanon are weak states whose militaries struggled to prevent actors from within and without traversing their borders. Turkey opted to back armed anti-Assad forces early in the war, turning a blind eye or even actively encouraging fighters crossing into Syria. Many of these would go on to join IS or Jabhat al-Nusra, while the PKK’s Syrian arm, the PYD, also benefitted.

In contrast, Jordan, while also backing the opposition, controlled its border more tightly and tried harder to vet those that did cross. Partly as a result, six years on, moderate rebel forces remain relatively strong in southern Syria while in the north, they have largely been subordinated to radical groups like IS and al-Qaeda.

In contrast to Turkey, which saw the Syrian civil war and the Arab spring as an opportunity to extend Ankara’s regional influence, Jordan’s King Abdullah viewed both in terms of survival. The past six years has seen Jordan carefully balance its security and domestic concerns with the demands of its key international allies, many of whom were fervently anti-Assad.

In terms of security threats from Syria, Jordan fears radical jihadists like those from IS and al-Qaeda. As the tide turns against IS in Syria, Amman is anxious that the remnants of the “caliphate” don’t turn their attention to Jordan via home grown sympathisers. Late last year, IS claimed its first attack in Jordan when 10 people were gunned down in Kerak, while six soldiers were killed in a border attack the previous summer.

Jordan, unsurprisingly, joined the US anti-IS coalition as soon as it was formed in 2014 and, unlike the Gulf states who later reduced their role, remains active. Unlike Turkey, which was slow to recognise the threat from IS, it was fear of jihadists ready to attack Jordanamong the rebels that motivated the country’s much tighter border policy from the very beginning.

Aid leverage

The conflict has prompted further domestic concerns. Jordan has received 1.4 million Syrian refugees, 660,000 registered with the United Nations, many from poor parts of Syria, straining resources and competing for work with locals. This was worsened by the closure of Syrian and Iraqi trade routes, contributing to Jordan’s highest unemployment rates in decades.

However, Jordan has tried to turn the situation to its advantage. Long a beneficiary of “location rent” from allies in the US and Gulf, Jordan has used the refugees’ presence to seek greater international aid.

For years, it demanded that any funds received for Syrians must be matched with development aid that would benefit Jordanians. More recently, in 2016, a major donor conference brought $1.7bn in pledges, conditional on Jordan granting more work permits to its refugees.

While this had mixed results, Amman thus far seems to have successfully leveraged the refugee crisis to its advantage rather than be overwhelmed by it.

A careful dance

Perhaps the greatest challenge from Syria’s war has been managing Jordan’s international ties. Jordan is firmly in the US and Saudi Arabian regional camp, depending on both economically and militarily, and joined their calls for Assad to stand down in 2011 – a sentiment conveniently shared by the Jordanian public.

However, these allies pulled Amman in different directions. Barack Obama shared King Abdullah’s caution about arming Syria’s rebels, but Saudi Arabia pressured Jordan to do more.

The result was a careful dance from Jordan, allowing weapons and training over the border to vetted, mostly tribal, rebels through the CIA-led Military Operations Center in Amman, but resisting any efforts to directly intervene or open the border more.

Now under Donald Trump, the Saudis and the White House seem more aligned, with Iran the main threat, and the US wants to use Jordan as a base to frustrate Tehran’s plans along the Syrian border.

However, while Jordan has no desire to see Iranian proxies along its border, and knows it must maintain close ties with both Riyadh and Washington to survive, it remains unlikely to yield to any untenable demands.

Israeli-Jordanian cooperation has reached new heights during the Syrian conflict. This has involved intelligence sharing on militant groups, Assad, and Hezbollah, and a joint show of air power to deter Russian jets from southern Syria.

However, Jordan has complained that Israel seems to be ignoring and may even have aided a Jabhat al-Nusra pocket emerging near the occupied Golan Heights. While Israel may see these jihadists as a counterweight to Hezbollah, Amman sees a threat.

Russia meanwhile, while Assad’s ally and the US’ enemy, retains more ambiguous ties to Amman. Relations have improved in recent years, including strengthened trade and defence ties. Pragmatically, with Vladimir Putin intervening on Assad’s side, Amman knows Moscow will be the power broker in any peace agreement, while Russia knows Jordan will be key for any deal to hold in the south.

Russia invited Jordan to attend the Astana ceasefire talks and has urged the border zone to be one of its four proposed “de-escalation” zones. Characteristically, in pursuit of Jordan’s security, Abdullah urged Moscow and Washington to reach an agreement on this.

Insulation and crackdowns

Despite seeing its neighbour to the north consumed by civil war, the Jordanian government has managed to insulate itself better than Syria’s other neighbours thus far. Survival has required a clever game of balancing essential international relationships while never losing sight of its core security and domestic priorities.

This has not come without a cost, however, and Syria’s civil war has coincided with a crackdown at home. In March, 15 alleged terrorists were executed – unusually harsh for Jordan – while a reform movement that emerged in 2011 has been repressed.

As through much of Jordan’s history, the Hashemites have successfully managed a regional crisis in Syria, and are unlikely to shift this cautious approach unless it suddenly impacts the regime’s survival.

However, as has also been common in Jordanian history, this has come alongside a willingness to crack down at home, with its key location protecting Abdullah from Western criticism.

Trump’s strike is more of the same in Syria

By Christopher Phillips, The Washington Post, 7 April 2017<!–

President Trump’s missile strike in Syria appears to be a dramatic escalation in U.S. involvement in Syria’s five-year-old civil war. This military response to President Bashar al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons is the first time U.S. forces have directly attacked the regime and sharply contrasts with former president Barack Obama’s hesitance to do so in 2013. Indeed, despite his own opposition to a military strike back then, Trump now blames his predecessor’s timidity for Assad’s brutality.While the style and delivery is different, Trump’s strike has much more in common with Obama’s approach to Syria than he thinks. As I argue in my recent book, this is the latest in a long line of piecemeal — and mostly symbolic — American interventions in the conflict that have done more to escalate the war than bring it to a close.

U.S. policy toward Syria since 2011

U.S. policy has been reactive rather than strategic since Syria’s uprising began in 2011. Although many inside the D.C. Beltway lament his lack of action, Obama actually intervened against Assad frequently. He deployed sanctions, called for Assad to step aside, warned him against using chemical weapons and armed rebel forces. But Obama was skeptical that the United States would be able to resolve the conflict.

Obama recognized that the United States needed to retrench from the Middle East. He was instinctively against military-led regime change — a position reinforced by the chaos in post-intervention Libya. Obama remained unconvinced that Syrians rebels — many of whom were Islamist militants — could prevent a similar descent into anarchy post-Assad. For these reasons, he halted several plans to increase U.S. involvement and stepped back from his own proposed missile strike in September 2013, accepting a Russian disarmament deal instead.

Obama’s Syria policy was thus contradictory: His realist instincts urged caution. Yet he frequently succumbed to pressure from domestic critics and foreign allies to be seen to be doing something. Obama’s anti-Assad escalations came in direct response to regime atrocities, rather than as part of a concerted effort to topple him. In summer 2012, Obama rejected a plan to arm the rebels, only to relent in June 2013 when allegations of the use of chemical weapons by Assad surfaced. Did Obama actually think arming rebels at this later stage enhanced their chances, or was it just the next logical escalation to publicly illustrate his displeasure with Assad?

Symbolic actions and unintended consequences

Whatever Obama’s intentions, his piecemeal escalations dramatically affected the Syrian civil war. Past studies of civil wars have shown how support and even the expectation of support from a foreign power encourage violent escalation. This clearly occurred in Syria, with multiple powers — notably Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar — joining the United States in shaping the conflict. One such example was Obama calling for Assad to stand down in 2011. Turkey and Qatar took this to mean that U.S. military intervention was forthcoming and encouraged the armed uprising against Assad.

At the same time, Obama’s statement helped reinforce Iran’s and Russia’s loyalty to Assad, seeing him as a line of defense against U.S. aggression. But in reality, Obama and his team thought that Assad was going to fall anyway and called for his departure to be on “the right side of history” rather than as the first step in regime change. Despite Obama’s reluctance about further involvement in the Middle East, Washington’s allies and enemies still believed the president’s hawkish rhetoric and expected action. When it never came, it angered the former and emboldened the latter.

Still no strategy to end Syria’s civil war

Obama used more cautious rhetoric about Syria in his final years in office. Trump may have to learn the same lesson. Despite a few mixed messages from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, it seems unlikely that Washington is about to seek to topple Assad, ditching its Syria policy that puts fighting the Islamic State first. There does not seem to be a renewed diplomatic effort to use the threat of future strikes to force Damascus and its allies into peace talks.

The more optimistic analysts suggest that Trump’s main goal for this strike was to preserve the international norm against using chemical weapons and deter such future regime attacks. The more cynical suggest that this was primarily domestic: yet another way to skewer Obama by appearing decisive and strong against Assad. A combination seems most likely, yet both actually reflect a continuation of Obama’s approach to Syria: short-term symbolic reaction to events rather than a concerted strategy to end the war.

Like Obama, Trump will find that such actions are rarely interpreted as merely symbolic. Assad’s opponents will be buoyed by the prospect of a U.S. president finally willing to deploy force against the regime. Turkey has already resurrected its calls for a no-fly zone, while the leader of a prominent Syrian opposition group said he hopes this will be the first strike of many.

U.S. strike raises international expectations

As Trump now implies that chemical weapons usage is the route to U.S. intervention, it would be unsurprising for the opposition and their international allies to highlight further claims, as they did in the months after Obama first declared his “red line.” In contrast, Assad’s allies, Russia and Iran, will most likely double down on the regime, as they did when Obama first called for Assad’s departure. Moscow already announced it will be strengthening Syria’s air defenses. Although Russian President Vladimir Putin was informed of the strike beforehand, he may yet counter-escalate against the United States in some form.

The same structural concerns that held back Obama remain for Trump: the dangers of mission creep and quagmire — and the risks of post-Assad anarchy. His strike may have raised expectations without reducing the risks.

Trump styles himself as the anti-Obama. However, if his Syria policy is to be short-term, reactive and primarily symbolic without any clear strategy to ultimately solve the crisis, it will be more a continuation of his predecessor’s actions than the radical departure he claims.

Visits to POMEPS and Harvard

Last week I had a very interesting and productive visit the US’ east coast, speaking about the Battle for Syria at American University, GW University, Georgetown, Harvard and Tufts.

At POMEPS at GW, I recorded a podcast with Prof. Marc Lynch discussing the book:

“I think the most important change [in Syria] was a stepping back by the United States,” said Phillips. “You get a desire by all passing opportunities being seen by other emerging regional powers: notably, Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia in opposition to the rise of Iran. They all want to take advantage, or to push their own agendas more. as the U.S. seems to step back. Because they have a particular interest in Syria, Syria ends up pretty early on a battle ground for these regional rivalries. One thing that really struck me doing this research was going right back to the summer of 2011, after the Arab Spring begins to settle down a little bit— and Syria continues to escalate into conflict. Most of these regional actors are looking at Syria, not with alarm, but as an opportunity. And I would argue that they are on their own way pouring fuel onto the fire of the conflict, rather than to sort of try to deescalate. I think that’s a major reason why you see a rush to arms answer.”

“I don’t think you’ll see much change from the Saudis, rather than just trying to back the non-jihadist groups in a non-Muslim Brotherhood groups,” said Phillips. “Turkey, on the other hand, you do see a full 180— and it’s been quite recent. It’s almost too late and sort of getting a little bit negligent on the threat posed by jihadists, even after ISIS capture Mosul. Turkey is very reluctant to join the United States coalition against ISIS— and only after it starts getting targeted at home by ISIS attacks does it begin to switch and turn on ISIS.”

At Harvard, the Crimson newspaper covered my talk:

Analyzing the international dynamics of the long-running conflict, University of London lecturer Christopher Phillips discussed his latest book on the Syrian Civil War at the Harvard Kennedy School on Monday.

Moderated by Kennedy School Professor Stephen M. Walt, the seminar provided contrasting perspectives on the external factors that influenced the middle-eastern region. Phillips, a guest lecturer, emphasized the tendency for the conflict’s different participants to escalate tensions rather than pursue peace, a subject his new book, “The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East,” focuses on.

Citing the different interests of Russia, Turkey, and other parties within Syria, he said the conditions surrounding the conflict emerged due to a power vacuum caused by a “Post-American Middle East.”

In particular, he argued that the accepted American policy of minimizing “boots on the ground” in the aftermath of Iran, combined with assertive regional powers and misinterpretation, created conditions that promoted conflict over de-escalation within Syria.

During the talk, Phillips focused on former President Obama’s decision to call for Bashar al-Assad to stand aside in August 2011, a move he called an “uninformed political decision,” and attempted to explain its implications.

Arab Fling – Paul Wood reviews The Battle for Syria

By Paul Wood

Washington Monthly, January/February 2017

A dozen men climbed single file up a steep slope covered in shale. Each footfall sent down a stream of rocks. They were Syrians, going home to join the armed uprising. The Lebanese border town below was hazy in the dusk, and from it the wind carried a distant pop: the Ramadan cannon, fired to tell the people they could eat. It was the first night of the holy month of fasting, prayer—and battle. We had heard talk of a big rebel offensive during Ramadan. Ramadan was a good time to fight, people said: Ramadan would see the end of the regime. I fell into step with a skinny kid wearing glasses, called Ali. He was eighteen and was supposed to be in Jordan, where his parents had sent him to avoid the war. They thought he was still there, studying computer science. He hadn’t told them he was on his way to Damascus to help overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. “I am ready to die for that,” he said.

This was August 2012, the second summer of a war now in its sixth year. As a journalist, I explained the war as the outcome of countless individual choices made by Syrians like Ali. That is only half the story. Christopher Phillips tells the other half in his new book, The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the Middle East. Phillips, a university lecturer and associate at Chatham House in London, writes that outside powers “played a major role in escalating the uprising into a civil war. . . . [T]he policies pursued by regional and international actors shaped its character and, importantly, ensured that it continued.” His is an account of what six nations did in Syria: Iran and Russia, with the regime; and Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, with the rebels. After six years of war, it is an important book. As Phillips says, these countries are stained with Syrian blood…

Click here for full article.

Christopher Phillips on Here and There with Dave Marash

My recent appearance on Here and There with Dave Marash – link here

Monday 19 December 2016

Christopher Phillips
The Battle for Syria, Is Aleppo the end of the rebellion?

“Endgame in Aleppo, the most decisive battle yet in Syria’s war,” that was the headline for the Washington Post’s lead story of December 13.  To the Post, the re-taking of almost all of Aleppo by ground troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad proclaimed “the end of an era for the rebellion.

If by “era” the Post means the last 4 years, during which a variety of anti-government forces fought their ways into control of more or less half of what was once the most prosperous, most beautiful, most alive city in Syria, it is true that the rebellion in Aleppo has been crushed, along with much of the city itself.

But what the Post suggests, by using words like “most decisive” and “end of an era” is, I think, a dramatic overstatement.  Neither the long-term, more than 30 year, rebellion against the Assad family tyranny in Damascus, or its shorter-term, 5 year old uprising, have been decisively defeated, not are the Syrian rebellion and civil war close to an end.

What the catastrophe of Aleppo,– which could not have happened without Russian air support,– has done, is to put things back to Square One, back to the battle lines of the first years of the 1980s, or at least back to the summer of 2011, when a wide spectrum of anti-government groups, some of them already quite well armed, seized control of parts of a few provincial cities and towns, and most of the vast, poor areas of rural Syria in between.

Today, of course, the rebels have sustained harrowing losses, as have the civilians who literally and figuratively support them.  The conventional estimate is that the fighting in Syria since 2011 has claimed more than 400,000 lives, as well as displacing 11 million people, more than half of Syria’s total population.  And the rebel forces have been expelled from most of their urban bases.  So they are back again to controlling open spaces, and sometimes the roads that pass through them, especially at night.  But notwithstanding all that — and the horror of Aleppo, — for the continuing civil war, nothing decisive has happened, and no end is in sight.

For the Assad government this ongoing guerilla war means endless trouble, for its Russian, Iranian and Hizbullah allies, this means endless casualties, expense and aggravation, and for the Syrian people it means an extension of what feel like a life sentence under the cruel thumb of war, a war they have no power to end.

The Russians and the Americans may be the biggest, but they aren’t the only outsiders keeping the horrifying Syrian war going.  Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are also arming and paying militias and pressing them to kill more.

Christopher Phillips is Senior Lecturer in the International Relations of the Middle East at Queen Mary, University of London and Associate Fellow at the Chatham House Middle East and North Africa program. He is author of Everyday Arab Identity and The Battle for Syria.