The year 2015 was yet another year of hopes dashed and more blood for Syria. The year’s main and perhaps only victor was Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and its self-proclaimed “caliph” Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi. “Losers of 2015” were the Syrian government, the Syrian opposition, and of course, the people of Syria who are still paying a ghastly price in terms of a rising death toll for everybody else’s ambitions in their country. The year closes with a sharp devaluation of the Syrian Pound (which now equals 400 SP to the US dollar), topped with heating fuel shortage and chronic electricity cuts throughout the entire country. A clear shortage of manpower has prompted massive military recruitment of able-bodied men aged between 18 and 42, further draining the already stagnated Syrian economy. Among the year’s main highlights were back-to-back military victories for Daesh in the first quarter of 2015, followed by a massive refugee crisis during the summer, and ground-breaking Russian military intervention that started in September. The Photo of the Year is a neat tie between two ghastly images. The first was that of the curator and scientist of the ancient city of Palmyra, Khalid Al Assad, who was captured by Daesh and beheaded in a public square for refusing to lead them to the ancient kingdom’s priceless treasures. It made world headlines in August 2015. The second was that of Aylan Kurdi, a toddler washed up on the shores of Turkey last autumn, wearing blue shorts and a red shirt, gripping the hearts of millions on all four corners of the globe. Both photos were a painful reminder of just how much the world has failed Syria.
The year started with major battles between Kurdish fighters and Daesh in the village of Kobani, south of the Turkish border, which resulted in the expulsion of Al Baghdadi’s terrorists — a false dawn for Daesh demise in 2015. In April, Daesh scored two major gains, infiltrating the Palestinian Yarmouk Camp of Damascus, also reaching the gates of the ancient city of Palmyra in the Syrian Desert. On May 20, Palmyra fell to Daesh. Since then, the terrorists have demolished Palmyra’s world-famous Arch of Triumph, a 2,000-year-old world heritage site, along with ancient temples Baalshamin and Bel. In late May, Daesh pushed towards the midland city of Homs, reaching as close to 35km and towards Al Hassakeh in the far north-eastern corner of Syria, resulting in a wave of refugees who boarded “death boats” via Turkey, fleeing to the safety of Europe. On June 26, Daesh killed more than 140 civilians in Kobani and carried out a suicide mission that killed 20 civilians in Al Hassakeh. In August, Daesh marched on the Qadam and Asali suburbs on the southern outskirts of the Syrian capital, from their base in Hajar Al Aswad near the Yarmouk Palestinian Camp. Far from being eradicated, Daesh thrived well into 2015, reaching the French capital of Paris in November. Their back-to-back victories and advances are testimony that neither American nor Russian operations have worked in eliminating or even curbing the influence of the group.
While Daesh troops were sweeping the country, other rebel groups were also making significant gains. The Islamic Army of Zahran Alloush started a period bombing campaign of Damascus in February 2015, showering the ancient capital with anywhere between 10-60 mortars daily, spreading havoc among citizens. In May, Jabhat Al Nusra, the Al Qaida branch in Syria, took over the strategic northwestern city of Idlib, making it the second city to fall under their control after Al Raqqa in 2013. The loss of Idlib vibrated throughout Syria and sent alarm bells ringing in Damascus. Also in May, Jabhat Al Nusra and its allies (a rebel coalition called the Army of Conquest) took the town of Mastouma and its army base in Idlib, forcing government forces to withdraw to the nearby city of Ariha, which came under Jabhat Al Nusra’s fire and was subsequently occupied as well. In June, rebels led a new offensive in the southern city of Daraa and into the Sahl Al Gab plains in northwestern Syria, near the city of Hama.
The massive losses were a strong wake-up call for Damascus and Moscow. In early September, the Russians began a major airlift, sending fighter jets, sophisticated satellite imagery, and trained pilots to join the Syrian War. The Hmaymeem Airport on the Syrian coast was put at the disposal of the Russian Air Force. In late September, Russian operations were signed off by President Vladimir Putin, with a mandate to fight until early January 2016. With help from their Russian and Lebanese allies, Syrian troops began to turn the tables on the opponents in November, retaking the strategic Kuweires Airbase and Air Force Academy that had been under siege from Daesh since 2012. More than 300 officers, under siege for nearly three years, were set free by the major offensive. Also in November, after heavy Russian bombardment, the Syrian Army captured a 408-square kilometre area in southern Aleppo — the first gain of such magnitude since that of Hezbollah in the Kalamoon Mountains in late 2013. They then retook the village of Al Hadath from Daesh, 30km from the Damascus-Homs Highway. In early December, the Syrian Army seized a 60km stretch of land in the mountains surrounding Latakia and liberated the village of Marj Al Sultan in Al Gouta, the agricultural belt surrounding the Syrian capital. Major cities like Al Raqqa and Idlib remain under rebel control, however, and others are on the verge of collapse, like Deir Ez-Zour along the Euphrates, and Aleppo, the industrial capital of Syria’s north.
Politically, zero results were achieved in the tug-of-war between the Syrian government and its opponents. Turkish and Qatari-backed groups are still opposed to any compromise with Damascus before the departure of President Bashar Al Assad. US statesmen have given a colourful assortment of contradicting messages, ranging from “[Al] Assad must go” to Al Assad can be part of the transition — and some even hinted at needing to work with him to end the war in Syria.
Although US-led air strikes against Daesh did not stop, they are now coordinating their bombing campaigns with the Russian Army, whom the Syrian Opposition accuses of striking at “moderate rebels”. In late September, the Pentagon suspended its “train and equip” programme for Syrian rebels, after many of its proxies were rounded up and either killed or disarmed by Jabhat Al Nusra and Daesh.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov put their full weight behind the Vienna Conference of October 2015. All major stakeholders — except the Syrian players — were invited to attend and they signed off a nine-point communique calling for a Syrian-led political process to end the war, making no reference to Al Assad’s fate or departure. This was music to the ears of Damascus and Moscow, but harshly criticised by the Turks and Saudis. The Vienna outcomes were cemented into law by the UN in December, calling for a ceasefire and face-to-face talks between the Syrians in January. Early presidential elections were set for the summer of 2017 and the UN Resolution made no mention of the Syrian president.
In response to Vienna, the Saudis hosted a high-profile meeting in December, bringing 15 rebel factions to the negotiating table with the Turkish-backed Syrian National Coalition and the Moscow-backed National Coordination Committees. All of them are expected to start talks with the Syrian government in January — ending 2015 on a grim note and slim hopes for a breakthrough in the New Year.