A War Within A War: Why Does The Civil War In Syria Continue?

The Syrian civil war has entered a stage of normalcy. The conflict, now into its sixth year of bloodshed, is a consistent feature of our nightly news programmes, newsfeeds, and Twitter timelines, though only now a major item when something particularly atrocious occurs.

Yesterday, however, brought some tentative positive news on the Syrian conflict as UN peace talks in Geneva concluded. Previous diplomatic talks over the course of the conflict have made little progress towards a peaceful resolution. Even this round of negotiations were almost derailed by attacks as discussions commenced. Therefore, the bar for this week’s round of discussions could not have been lower. However, the UN envoy for Syria emerged on Friday with some hopeful conclusions, he informed the press that “We have a clear agenda in front of us” and confirmed the long-term goal of enacting the Security Council Resolution 2254 for a ‘political transition’ – a topic of high controversy throughout the civil war for Assad’s government and a central goal for opposition groups. Despite the cautious optimism from both UN and the opposition negotiation team, Syrian officials made no comment to the media following the talks. The cynics amongst us may question whether these kinds of talks really result in any material change for Syria?

History tells us there are several factors which influence the longevity of civil wars; Syria exhibits several of these. The Syrian civil war has endured relentlessly since 2010. It triggered by the Assad government’s detainment and torture of anti-government teenagers, subsequent violent backlash from pro-democracy supporters and violence escalation by Assad. From what began as a two-sided war, the number of actors involved in the conflict has expanded significantly. It has been characterized by brutal determination from Assad, the threats of violence through multiple rebel groups with conversing interests and priorities, the involvement of ISIS, Al Qaeda and their affiliates and foreign involvement. The foreign support from the US, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey fuels the conflict through the supply of arms, political backup and the recurrent theme of international conflicts involving the US and Russia – that neither side wants to lose face. In addition, this has created a reliance on foreign forces rather than civilian support which can explain the mass casualty atrocities committed by both sides and such a high civilian death toll.

So it seems, Syria is at a standstill. With no one wanting to back down, and the possibility of any side winning through military means highly unlikely, what happens now?  There has however been one significant change which could impact the situation in Syria. The Inauguration of President Trump, with his non-traditional approach to almost every aspect of his presidency so far, throws the role of the US in Syria into speculation. Trump throughout his campaign expressed a hardline approach to ISIS and his intentions once elected, which would be to destroy the terrorist group, even if this means working with Russia at the expense of suspending the US’s support of opposition forces. This possible scenario and Assad’s reference to Trump as a “natural ally” pushes prospects of a peaceful resolution discussed this week further into the distance. However, not all hope is lost. After no US delegation attended peace talks in January in Astana, despite a personal invite from Russia, acting State Department spokesperson Mark Toner assured “The United States is committed to a political resolution to the Syrian crisis through a Syrian-owned process, which can bring about a more representative, peaceful, and united Syria”. Therefore, it appears, Trump’s solutions are for the time being, still up in the air.

Despite the heavyweight power of the US, peaceful resolution in Syria will not be determined by Trump. It will be determined through the achievement of ‘political transition’. ‘Political transition’ will not be achieved through military action, thus this week’s inch in progress should still be celebrated. If all sides continue to commit to the negotiation process, in particular, if the Assad government can prove they are not just entertaining the prospect of ‘political transition,’ then perhaps more baby steps towards peace can continue to be made in the near future.