Internally displaced Syrian children stand next to their tents in an IDP camp located in Idlib, Syria, Feb 27, 2020. (Photo: Agencies)
In a world gripped by a pandemic, global unrest and a fast-moving news cycle, it can be difficult to remember that the war in Syria is still happening.
Even before the coronavirus outbreak took over daily lives around the globe, the conflict, which began in early 2011, had largely fallen off the world's collective radars－reduced to a never-ending fight involving an evermore complex web of players and refugees that few remember once lived in a country they called home.
But as it enters its 10th year, the war－which gave rise to the Islamic State terror group and triggered the worst humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century－has shown it is still creating new tragedies that can have an outsized impact on global politics.
Earlier this month, Turkish and Syrian troops were clashing in Syria's northwest. That brought NATO-member Turkey and Russia, which back opposing sides of the war, to the brink of direct confrontation, and produced an unprecedented wave of displaced people. Arguing that it faces a potential new influx of refugees from Syria, Turkey announced it would no longer stop its vast migrant and refugee population from illegally entering Greece, touching off a new crisis for the European Union.
More than half of Syria's prewar population of 23 million people have been driven from their homes, and a staggering 80 percent of the population live beneath the poverty line, according to the United Nations. Half the country lies in ruins. A political process does not exist. Contrary to what some may hope, the Syrian war is nowhere near its endgame.
On Monday, a war monitor reported that a total of 4,440 Turkish military vehicles and 9,450 Turkish soldiers had been sent to Idlib since February. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that 60 vehicles and tanks entered Idlib on Monday alone.
Chaos in the north
A cease-fire brokered by the Turkish and Russian presidents in Moscow last week may have put the brakes on the Syrian government's devastating military campaign to retake the northwestern Idlib Province. But the halt is not a long-term solution, and the war's final and most devastating chapter is yet to come.
In the three months before it was paused, the Syrian war triggered the largest single wave of displacement since 2011. Idlib, home to about 3 million people, is the last remaining rebel-controlled area in Syria. And from Damascus' perspective, it is the only place standing in the way of complete military victory.
"Even if Idlib is somehow retaken and an estimated 3 million people are accommodated in Turkey or elsewhere, it is unlikely that Damascus has the capacity or even the tools to rule over formerly opposition-controlled areas for long periods of time without trouble," said Danny Makki, a London-based Syrian journalist.
Similarly, a Turkey-Russia deal brokered in October ended a Turkish military campaign against the United States-allied Syrian Kurdish fighters in the country's northeast. But the oil-rich region is still contested. There are hundreds of US troops there, ostensibly on a mission to protect Kurdish-controlled oil fields from remnants of the Islamic State group.
Both US and Russian troops patrol the tense area separately, and thousands of Iranian-backed militias are stationed nearby.
Nearly a decade of fighting has transformed the Middle East country into a proxy battlefield where world powers can settle their scores.
The US, Russia, Turkey and Iran all have boots on the ground in Syria. The Lebanese Hezbollah group and a slew of other Iranian-backed militias are fighting there. And Israel bombs inside Syria frequently and at will.
With Russian help, Damascus has been able to chip away at rebel-held territory. The rebel hold has shrunk in size from more than half of the country at one point to a tiny strip in Idlib Province by the Turkish border now.
But many areas recovered by the government are a wasteland of wrecked buildings. Few refugees have dared to return, and reconstruction efforts are on hold, pending a political resolution.
Meanwhile, the economic situation is deteriorating so fast that ordinary Syrians struggle keep up with prices that rise even over the course of a day. The currency is collapsing: It now takes 500 Syrian pounds to get a dollar, 20 times the pre-2011 amount, The Associated Press reported. The economic squeeze has been worsened by neighboring Lebanon's acute financial crisis.
"It is a devastating dynamic, almost a perfect storm," David Beasley, head of the World Food Program, said in a recent interview. "You've got the war, the devastation of the war on the economy for the last eight, nine, 10 years. But now you compound the Lebanese economic collapse because the Syria and Lebanon economy are tied together, and this is really becoming a perfect storm of devastation," he said.