The uprising in Syria will mark its sixth anniversary on March 15, but the Syrian war has far from run its course.
Much has changed in the Syrian government’s favour over the past 18 months. Russia’s decision to formally intervene in the conflict in September 2015 buttressed the ailing regime’s air superiority and allowed it to win back substantial swathes of Syrian territory, most notably in East Aleppo in December 2016.
In the international arena, Donald Trump became president of the United States and signalled that the US would distance itself from the Syrian opposition, while the opposition’s key state sponsor, Turkey, has recently shown greater interest in using opposition groups to defeat Syrian Kurdish factions and the Islamic State group than the Syrian regime.
Yet these military and strategic victories have not translated into an imminent shift in the conflict, nor an acceptance of potential defeat by the opposition. In fact, the failure of the fourth round of Geneva talks to produce any concrete outcomes highlighted the fact that changes on the ground have done little to bring the people around the negotiating table closer together.
The talks were almost over before they began when the opposition threatened a boycott over seating arrangements at the opening ceremony. The warring sides later swapped predictable barbs over the basic format of future negotiations.
The regime accused the opposition of holding the talks hostage after the opposition refused to place terrorism on equal footing with the other three pillars that would guide future talks: accountable governance, the drafting of a new constitution, and elections supervised by the UN.
The UN Envoy to Syria, Steffan de Mistura, later conceded that future agendas would include terrorism. This represented a small win for the regime, which claims to be battling a terrorist insurgency.
For its part, the opposition focused on political transition, which has remained a regime red line, particularly on the question of President Bashar al-Assad’s future. Although the opposition High Negotiation Committee expressed optimism after discussing Syria’s political transition with de Mistura to “an acceptable depth” for the first time, recent regime military victories give the government little incentive to make significant concessions. This is unlikely to change short of a serious change of heart in its foreign backers.
If nothing else, the talks underlined just how little diplomatic progress had been made since the Geneva process began in 2012, and that military gains are only one part of the Syrian peace puzzle.
Is the time right for peace?
Assad’s progress on the ground will be music to the ears of his supporters, but is something of a pyrrhic victory given that hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians have paid the price. While the regime lauded its win in Aleppo as a “step on the road to ending terrorism in the whole of Syrian territory and creating the right circumstances for a solution to end the war,” a subsequent report by the UN found:
The ‘surrender or starve’ tactic [used] by the pro-government forces has proven disastrous for civilians but successful for overtaking opposition-held territory.
The regime also stands accused of deploying chemical weapons on civilian populations, overseeing the killing of detainees on an industrial scale and possible war crimes. Significant accusations of abuses have also been levelled against the opposition, including during the battle for Aleppo.
However, a 2015 survey of Syrian refugees based in Germany identified the Assad regime and its allies as the most feared warring party: 77% of those surveyed expressed having feared arrest or kidnap by the Syrian regime and its allies prior to leaving Syria. Interviews with refugees in Lebanon found that many felt they could not return to Syria under Assad.
Indeed, while Assad may now enjoy a military advantage, many Syrians will find it difficult to accept a regime whose existence has been underwritten by brute force. This knowledge emboldened the opposition to continue making strong claims against the state in Geneva, and has given it little appetite for drastic compromise despite its military losses.
This will remain a problem even if the international community forces the opposition to compromise. With Assad’s military victories failing to rebuild the political credibility essential to successfully govern, the legitimacy deficit is inescapable.
Syria’s prospects for peace are further complicated by the exclusion of powerful military factions that control significant amounts of Syrian territory. Although the opposition delegation contained militant groups, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and Ahrar al-Sham did not participate. Justifiably, the opposition delegation also excluded the former al-Qaeda affiliate Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, best known as Jabhat al-Nusra.
Although there were pragmatic reasons for each exclusion, it’s questionable whether those at the talks would have been able to enforce peace even if an agreement had been reached.
The war is still playing out
And so, the war continues. The Syrian opposition has suffered further blows, including in post-Aleppo infighting. While now largely relegated to Idlib province, parts of northern Hama and Deraa provinces, and eastern Damascus, the opposition remains heavily armed, and one US intelligence estimate in late 2016 suggested that moderate opposition fighters alone remained more than 100,000 strong.
The opposition has demonstrated attentiveness to change in the topography of the Syrian conflict. Charles Lister reported that opposition groups were already modifying their training regimens to better suit guerrilla warfare early last year. This may be the future of the Syrian conflict. Although it would prove less costly to the regime than full-scale war, it would represent a significant impediment to peace.
And so the peace process will continue. De Mistura optimistically declared after the Geneva talks that: “The train is ready, it is in the station, warming up its engine. Everything is ready, it just needs an accelerator – and the accelerator is in the hands of those who were attending this round.”
The warring parties are due to return to the Kazakh capital Astana next week, and to Geneva again in late March to continue talks. While these efforts may one day bear fruit, it is clear that the Syrian negotiation processes in their current state will not be an accelerator for peace.