With the near-total capture of Aleppo by government forces in December 2016, for some, it appeared that the Syrian civil war, which killed half a million, created 5 million refugees, and displaced a further 6 million, had come to a bloody end. Yet, conflict continues in Syria, with an estimated 15% of the country still held by rebel forces. The longevity of the civil war is due to the complexity of the involved players, with estimates suggesting that a thousand different forces are engaged in the conflict. This includes those seeking political and economic reform, agitators from neighbouring states, Sunni Muslims opposed to the Alwaite (including Assad) who make up government elite, and jihadist forces, particularly since the emergence of ISIS, who have taken control of Raqqa.
Meanwhile, sectarian violence within Syria has been sponsored by foreign intervention, becoming a microcosm of the wider political and religious conflicts in the region. The governments of majority Shia countries have supported Assad, while Sunni-majority states have backed the rebels. Iran, in particular, has spent billions bolstering Assad with military advisors, weapon subsidies, and oil credits. Furthermore, Russia joined with Iran to begin an air campaign in September 2015, which was supposedly intended to only target terrorists, but has hit a number of rebels and civilians. In addition, the US has been strongly critical of Assad, particularly due to his willingness to target civilians and use chemical weapons. Although it has avoided directly attacking government forces, by instead targeting ISIS, the US has supported several rebel groups.
In Geneva, peace talks have recently concluded on a ‘more positive note,’ according to the UN’s envoy for Syria, De Mistura. The parties have agreed to return to discuss four key issues later in March: governance, a draft constitution, elections, and counter-terrorism. But, what role the new American president can play in potential peace is unclear. In particular, President Trump faces his Syria conundrum: is it more important to ally with Russia or contain Iran? Both sides of the civil war have spoken of Trump as a potential partner. Assad has said his anti-terrorism makes him a ‘natural ally,’ while the opposition leader at Geneva has argued he could make up for Obama’s actions and oppose the ‘devilish’ Iran. Moreover, Russian academics and ministers have also spoken about co-operating with Trump to stabilize Syria.
Trump’s clearest suggestion of policy for Syrians is the creation of ‘safe zones’ where civilians can avoid the conflict. Yet, the policy is ill formed and significant protection would be needed to avoid the kind of mistakes made in Bosnia in 1995. A safe zone would likely require a no-fly zone and significant spending (an estimated at $1 billion a month by the Pentagon, although Trump has argued the Gulf States should fund these zones). The question also remains: would the administration seek the creation of safe zones through the United Nations, with other governments, or unilaterally? There is no obvious incentive for either Assad or Russia to help create, or even tolerate, safe zones they don’t control. Furthermore, Trump’s interest in safe zones is largely an extension of his concerns with refugees entering Europe or the US, and this solution would divert significant resources away from combating ISIS, which Trump has emphasized as his top priority.
Fighting in Syria persists due to the complexity of the civil wars’ origins, which has been further escalated due to the scale of violence and foreign intervention. With that said, Trump’s determination to target ISIS will do little to address many of the conflicts taking place, nor do much to relieve the suffering of civilians.