Enter The Nexus Of The Syrian Conflict

Donald Trump’s planned ‘Travel Ban’ provoked outrage across the world and set an ominous tone for those hoping that US Foreign Policy might prioritize a humanitarian solution to the lethal conflict in Syria, now in its sixth bloody year.

In 2002, James Fearon of Stanford University put the average length of contemporary civil wars at around 10 years. In half this time, since the anti-government protests in Syria in 2011 already more than 450,000 Syrians have been killed, over a million injured and over 12 million – half the country’s pre-war population – displaced. Neighboring Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey have struggled to cope with the largest refugee exodus since WW2, the conflict has proved fertile recruiting ground for jihadist groups and much of urban Syria has been reduced to a wasteland. Further, several obstacles to a peaceful resolution in Syria combine to entrench an ever bloodier stalemate.

An important factor prolonging the Syrian conflict is its multi-sided nature. Studies have shown that since 1945 UN peace missions have succeeded in 63% of two-sided conflicts but in only 27% of multi-sided ones. The myriad of groups fighting in Syria, (various Syrian rebel groups; affiliates of Al Qaeda and ISIS; Syrian forces and foreign groups like the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah) makes a negotiated settlement much less likely. There are wars within wars; the presence of multiple armed groups, each with its own aims and priorities, reduces the likelihood of mutual disarmament and narrows the terms of a possible peace deal.

The stalemate is further entrenched by the intervention of foreign powers. If one side loses ground, foreign backers send supplies or air support to prevent their defeat, only prompting a parallel intervention in favour of the opposing sides. This decreases the likelihood of a decisive military victory; the cycle of violence is escalated without changing the fundamental balance of the war. Further, as foreign sponsors are not directly affected by the human costs of the conflict and fighting forces are less reliant on popular support to succeed, there is a reduced strategic incentive to protect civilians from atrocities.

Donald Trump’s position on the Syrian conflict has been vague, but his notorious ‘travel ban’ of 27 January 2017 bolsters suspicions that an isolationist ‘America-first’ principal is likely to be the guiding force behind his foreign policy. Trump’s priority in Syria is to “knock the hell out of ISIS”, accommodating Russian interests and supporting the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad as the lesser evil to do so. In fighting the crisis’s symptoms – terrorism – Trump would strengthen its principal cause – Assad’s dictatorship. According to a 2015 study, “outright military victory in a civil war often comes at the price of horrific (even genocidal) levels of violence against the defeated, including their civilian populations”, an outcome which in Syria could drive rebel groups into the arms of jihadist extremists.

An Assad victory may temporarily end the Syrian civil war, but would not necessarily bring about any political solution or alleviate the humanitarian crisis. According to U.N. spokesman Jens Laerke, “even if fighters put down their arms tomorrow”, without careful negotiations and attempts to address the social causes underlying the conflict, “there would still be an emergency humanitarian situation for at least a year”. Equally, Trump’s vague plans to “absolutely do safe zones” for Syrian refugees would need international cooperation from sceptical Russia and Iran and a peacekeeping force on the ground. Even if (a big if) safe zones were implemented, they would have to be part of a broader framework with longer term aims in mind to halt the bloodiest conflict the 21st century has seen so far.