BEIRUT, Lebanon, March 12 (UPI) -- Ten years after the start of a revolution, Syria is in ruins and in danger of collapse. While President Bashar al-Assad has survived the war and remains in power, there is no solution in sight to restore peace and end the population's suffering.
Syria's descent started with small peaceful protests on Jan. 26, 2011, influenced by waves of "Arab Spring" uprisings that toppled then-President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Months later, it was the turn of Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi, who was captured, beaten and killed by fighters in his home city of Sirte that October.
In Syria, protesters quickly grew in number. The major protests that broke out on March 15, marking the start of the revolution, soon expanded to towns and cities across the country. For six months, they remained peaceful, demanding democratic reforms and Assad's ouster to end four decades of oppressive rule.
During that time, Assad offered some concessions and promised reforms: ending a 48-year state of emergency and organizing a referendum on a new constitution that was to pave the way for a multi-party parliamentary election within three months.
None of these promises materialized, with Assad refusing to step down and resorting to excessive force to quell the protests, reportedly upon advice from his Iranian allies.
"They told him: Use force and you will be able within three months to quell this unrest as we did in 2009," a senior official of a Syria-backed militant group said at the time, referring to Iran's Green revolution protests.
But the conflict escalated into a full-fledged war, attracting regional and international military intervention and triggering the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
Nearly 600,000 were killed or missing, including 88,000 civilians believed to have died of torture in government-run prisons; 12 million Syrians -- half the pre-war population -- remain displaced (5.6 million outside Syria and 6.7 million inside); large parts of Syria and its infrastructure have been destroyed; a record 12.4 million Syrians -- nearly 60 percent of the population -- are food insecure.
"Let us not forget that the root cause of what happened in Syria was and still is the tyrant Assad's regime, and our struggle is for reclaiming our stolen human and constitutional rights," Hadi al-Bahra, opposition co-chair of the Syrian Constitutional Committee and former president of the Western-backed, Istanbul-based opposition National Coalition, told UPI.
Assad was the first to seek foreign military intervention, purposely releasing "terrorists and extremists" from prisons in 2012 and opening Syria's borders to "all types of foreign terrorists networks and militias," Bahra said.
The opposition also turned to outside powers for support but failed to form a united front, weakened by internal disputes, external interference and military defeats. The outside powers never agreed on a unified approach, with the United States pivoting to focus on fighting terrorism, while regional forces like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar supported the armed rebels to serve their own agendas.
"It was an unjust war against the Syrian people, who were left with no choice but to defend themselves by all possible means," Bahra said, defending opposition alliances with the Western and regional powers. "We were not fighting their own wars but defending our own people."
Assad boasted about "emerging victorious" from decade-long battles with the armed opposition, defeating "the conspiracy " and an "international war" on Syria.
That was largely due to Iran and its sectarian militias, and most importantly to Russia's military intervention in 2015 that "radically modified the configuration and 'physiognomy' of the conflict," said Ziad Majed, associate professor of Middle East Studies at the American University of Paris.
"However, Assad's absolute power was never restored," Majed told UPI.
The country is now divided into three influence zones, with five foreign armies (from Russia, the United States, Turkey, Iran and Israel) active, along with sectarian militias from Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.
Bahra said Assad doesn't really rule his country, as Russia and Iran share control of the 65 percent of territory his forces have recaptured and highly influence his decisions and policies. Assad, moreover, doesn't control the majority of Syria's "natural resources and wealth, meaning gas, oil and agriculture rich land."
While Assad is trying to consolidate his hold on power and preparing for presidential elections in the coming months, he is facing an even bigger threat: The economy is collapsing due to the impact of war, destruction, debts, corruption, militia rule and mismanagement of diminishing resources.
"This is not going to change, especially that Lebanon, which served for some time as a 'back yard' for many businessmen close to the Assad regime, has collapsed itself," Majed said.
According to the World Bank this month, Lebanon's deepening economic and political crisis and the 2019 Caesar Act have further restrained Syria's economic ties, leading to fuel shortages, price hikes and a rapid depreciation in local currency. Millions of people are unemployed and live in poverty.
The biggest challenge remains Syria's reconstruction.
A report released earlier this month by international aid agency World Vision estimated the economic cost of Syria's 10-year conflict at over $1.2 trillion, a cost expected to accumulate even if the war ended today to $1.7 trillion in today's money through 2035. The U.N. Economic and Social Commission for West Asia estimated restoring Syria to its 2010 condition would take some $400 billion.
Despite recent attempts by Russia and some Arab countries to end Assad's isolation, the United States and European Union remain firm on withholding support for reconstruction until a political transition is underway and free and fair elections are held in line with U.N Security Council Resolution 2254.
"I cannot see any possible solution in the near future because international and regional negotiations are not progressing, and all U.N. initiatives have failed," Majed said. "No transition can be expected with Assad remaining in power... Russia and Iran know that but won't sacrifice him as long as they don't get what they want."
While Moscow wants a recognition of its role as a "mandatory" power in Syria, fully in charge of the political process and the supervision of the reconstruction, Iran aims to be a "regional [nuclear] superpower," not threatened with U.S. sanctions or Israeli attacks, whose roles are accepted in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.
"Neither the U.S. nor Turkey nor other actors can accept that for the time being," Majed said.
Therefore, Assad is playing on time, knowing that engaging in the political process, sharing power and accepting reforms mean the end of his regime.
"He doesn't have the intention of reaching any political solution to the crisis unless he is forced to," Bahra said. "He is ready to bargain with all foreign powers, as long as they agree to keeping his grip on power, but not ready to negotiate in good faith with any Syrians."
Therefore, the status quo or a "low-intensity violent conflict" is expected to last for some time before new international and regional dynamics emerge, Majed said.
"Escalation, as well as negotiation and compromises, are decided by these regional and international actors, with Russia, Iran and Turkey being the most decisive and influential among them, while Assad, like the Syrian opposition, has no say in that."