In April 2018 I was taken on a coach through miles of war-wasted urban landscape in the Syrian cities of Aleppo and Homs. They looked much like the photos of Gaza today, except the shattered streets were always empty and sometimes there were longhand Arabic signs chalked crudely on broken concrete slabs: ‘for sale’, or ‘water disconnected’. The people had fled the crude barrel bombs. Where had they gone? The war had ended in these cities over a year before, which was why we were allowed to visit. Deaths in Gaza are counted – in Syria they were not. We only have estimates. Somewhere between 25,000-30,000 civilians and 10,000-15,000 combatants died in Aleppo. The dead were not even real statistics.

Although the Syrian civil war often hit the headlines and could stay at the top of the news agenda for a while, it received nothing like the coverage of Israel and Gaza. How many people know that it still continues, albeit currently at a low level? Often coverage is of matters chosen because they might strike a chord back home – like the death of Marie Colvin in Homs in 2012 or the more recent story of Shamima Begum. On other occasions, events in Syria are covered in the Western media because they might affect us. The use of chemical weapons and the beefing up of Russia’s strategic role as protector-in-chief of the regime are obvious examples.

Syria is a forgotten country. It’s fallout with the West began with the Anglo-French partition of Historic Syria against the wishes of the majority of its people in 1920. That made one of the Arab world’s best hopes for democracy stillborn, even though a constitution had been agreed by teams of secularists and Islamists working together. Then, Britain’s gauche imperial rule over Palestine inflicted the Arab-Israeli dispute on the region, and western nations refused to sell arms to Syria so that it could never be equal on the battlefield to Israel (or, for that matter, Turkey, Iraq or anyone else who might decide to invade it).

The USSR stepped in, putting Syria on the wrong side in the Cold War. By the time that ended, Syria had gone through periods of chaos followed by the iron dictatorship of Hafez al Assad who seized power in 1971. As a young air force cadet, he was in the first year in which new Syrian pilots did not travel to Britain for training, since the Syrian government and the administration of Sir Anthony Eden had fallen out with each other. Hafez never came to know or understand the West, and completed his training as a fighter pilot in the USSR instead of England. Although he was bitterly homesick, the rest, as they say, is history. The Stasi provided expertise to his numerous and overlapping internal security services, and he was so impressed with the North Korean ‘Young Pioneers’ that he ordered the establishment of a similar youth organisation in Syria.

Syria’s strong man would have made peace with Israel if he could. He was prepared to accept a boundary along the 1949 armistice lines which had been the limit of Israel when it was created. But as every self-respecting American Zionist knows, the Golan has always rightfully been part of the land of the long lost tribe of Manasseh, and eventually President Trump recognised it as Israeli sovereign territory. To his shame, Biden has not reversed this.

In the decade before everything unravelled in 2011, with Hafez al Assad’s son Bashar as president, Syria was trapped in a vice. One jaw was the security state, which would depose Bashar if he tinkered with it too much. The other was crony capitalism mixed with neoliberal economics which led to increased wealth for some and poverty for more. Top army officers (disproportionately from the president’s Alawi sect) formed business partnerships with members of elite Sunni merchant families, while figures in the presidential family scooped off the cream.

 If Assad ever loses his Russian and Iranian allies, it is hard to see his regime surviving.

Bashar did not have his father’s connection with ordinary people or grasp of their needs, fears and ambitions. Hafez al Assad came from upwardly mobile peasant stock. As president, he often neglected the economy but always remained in touch with the countryside, spreading roads, schools, clinics and mains electricity across it; the purpose of the ruling Ba’th party was reduced to keeping his regime in power, but under Hafez it flourished in the small towns and provincial capitals. Under Bashar, however, Muslim benevolent associations took over much of the welfare state’s role in response to budget cuts, while the party decayed and the regime’s powerbase narrowed. Bashar’s advisers would have whispered in his ear what his father learned when there was a Jihadi insurrection in 1982: the indiscriminate and overwhelming use of force works. In the Syria of the Assads, the killing of thousands could be hushed up while the outside world would soon forget. Religious tolerance was deeply ingrained in Syria, but now there were disproportionate numbers of people from the religious minorities – Christians, Alawis, Druze, Ismailis and Twelver Shi’is – among the Assads’ supporters. This threatened to put their communities in an invidious position when the regime hugged them closely.

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When demonstrations by tens of thousands calling for reform spread across Syria in 2011, the security forces did not know how to manage protests except with lethal force and snipers on rooftops. The country slowly imploded. Much of the army had to be confined to barracks because its loyalty was suspect, so the regime was always short of manpower. Without Hezbollah’s troops, Russia’s airpower and Iran’s organisational skills and mercenaries, it could not have survived. If it had collapsed, Syria would probably have descended into warlordism, since the opposition had splintered as foreign powers backed different factions.

Today Bashar rules perhaps two-thirds of the country, and millions have become refugees. If he ever loses his Russian and Iranian allies because they have problems at home, it is hard to see his regime surviving. The currency has collapsed. Over 2,500 Syrian Pounds are needed to buy one US dollar. In 2010, it was less than fifty. Inflation is at well over 100 per cent per annum, and there are chronic shortages. In Damascus, power outages this Ramadan officially last six hours out of seven (unofficially it may be far worse). At the same time, Syria has become a narco-state, its most significant export being the amphetamine Captagon. There are experts who say this is deliberate policy to force other Arab countries to resume normal trading relations with Syria, so that the regime can be weaned off producing and selling it.

If Israel’s campaign spreads beyond Gaza, much of it will be fought on and over Syrian soil.

Much of the east of the country is controlled by the self-styled Syrian Democratic Forces, dominated by Syrian Kurds. In response, Turkey has occupied a buffer zone along much of the northern border. This is aimed at keeping as many refugees as possible in Syria and, above all, at preventing the emergence of a Kurdish state. To the north west of the country, the hills and mountains of Idlib province are home to two million refugees who prefer life there to living under Bashar. They remain under chaotic opposition control dominated by the authoritarian Salafis of Hay’at tahrir al-shaam (HTS). Once loyal to the regime or at least quiescent, Druze-dominated areas around Suwayda, along the Jordanian border, have seen protests by women calling for the overthrow and prosecution of Bashar. This February, for the first time, a demonstrator there was shot dead by security forces. At the same time, like a jack-in-the box that cannot be suppressed, the self-styled Caliphate of Isis remains active, still able to expand into an area if a vacuum emerges.

These embers could easily burst into pyrotechnics again. Last time around, half a million people died. Israel’s forensic destruction of the Iranian Consulate in Damascus on 1 April killed two top Iranian commanders. If Israel’s campaign against the ‘axis of resistance’ spreads beyond Gaza, much of it will be fought on and over Syrian soil. If Israel neuters Hezbollah after a conflagration of unimaginable intensity, the main beneficiary might well be Isis or a new incarnation of it. Is that what the West wants?

The least worst option for Syria may lie in encouraging and deepening the thaw between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia has finally ended the export of the Wahhabism that morphed into the ideology that underpinned Al Qaeda and Isis. It shares an interest with Iran in a quiet and quiescent Syria. A complete rapprochement between the two would be good news for Bashar. Whether that would make it good news for the Syrian people is another question, but at least it might save them from another proxy war, one in which once again there would only be estimates of the numbers killed.

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