THE UN Children’s Fund says it no longer has words to describe the suffering in Syria. In an unusual move, the agency released a blank statement to express its outrage at President Bashar al-Assad’s latest onslaught. On February 18th his regime, with Russian support, began pounding Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, with artillery, air strikes and barrel bombs. Hundreds of people have already been killed. The regime appears to be mustering troops ahead of a possible ground assault.
Far from winding down, Syria’s almost seven-year civil war is heating up and growing more complicated. The collapse of Islamic State (IS) has freed local and foreign powers, which were loosely aligned against the jihadists, to pursue other objectives. Some have turned their guns on each other. Observers see echoes of Lebanon’s civil war, which also drew in foreigners and dragged on for 15 years. But the war in Syria has already been far more bloody.
The territorial demise of IS has allowed Mr Assad to focus on the final pockets of resistance to his regime in western Syria, the most populous part of the country. In December he sliced off a chunk of Idlib, which had been under rebel control. He has now set his sights on Eastern Ghouta, which the regime attacked with chemical weapons in 2013 (and perhaps more recently). Mr Assad’s tactics are as familiar as they are chilling: besiege, starve and bomb civilians until the rebels surrender or grow too weak to resist. Homes and hospitals have been destroyed. Supplies of medicine, fuel and food are dangerously low.
The same strategy worked for the regime in Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city, which was held by rebels until 2016. Its fall marked one of the biggest turning points of the war. From then it has seemed increasingly certain that Mr Assad will remain in power.
Now he is growing more assertive. Pro-government militias have moved north into the Kurdish enclave of Afrin, where they hope to help Kurdish forces beat back an incursion by Turkey, which opposes Kurdish efforts to create a semi-autonomous zone on its border.
There is a growing risk of new clashes involving the many external powers that have been drawn in to Syria: Russia and Iran, which back the regime; America, which arms and supports the Kurds; Turkey, which has intervened to repel them; and Israel, which is alarmed by the prospect of Iran and its Lebanese ally, Hizbullah, implanting themselves in the Golan Heights. “With the fight against IS receding and the elimination of any serious threat to the regime’s survival, the conflict is more than ever defined by the struggle among regional and international actors,” says Randa Slim of the Middle East Institute, a think-tank in Washington.
Some have already come into direct conflict. On February 7th American-led forces killed scores of Russian mercenaries who were fighting alongside pro-regime forces in eastern Syria. On February 10th Israel intercepted an Iranian drone in its airspace, prompting it to strike the base in Syria from which it was controlled. After an Israeli jet was hit by Syrian anti-aircraft fire and crashed, Israel launched more such attacks in Syria.
Mr Assad and his backers will probably defeat most of the rebels in eastern Ghouta and elsewhere. But that may only mark the start of a new phase in the conflict, one defined more by the machinations of foreign powers. The war is likely to keep burning for some time. Syrian civilians will continue to bear the brunt of the fighting. “We are dying and starving. But where is the world? Where is the UN?” asks Ahmad Khansour, an activist in Eastern Ghouta. “All it does now is issue blank statements.”
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