Hurdles For Peace In Syria?

Is Peace possible in Syria? After seven years since the 2011 uprising, the devastating Syrian civil war seems to be winding down to an end, with the regime of Bashar al-Assad evidently still standing. The death toll currently varies between 400 thousand to above 500 thousand. Due to the scale and complexities of the war, observer groups are struggling to calculate a refined estimate, even the United Nations has virtually stopped counting since 2014.

Nevertheless, as the fighting abates, attention should shifted onto the ‘post-conflict’ Syria, policy makers alike should take this opportunity to seek a peace settlement between the belligerents, for the benefit of the Syrian people and the stability of the region. However, the Syrian conflict, once considered a revolution against the dictatorial regime, has culminated into somewhat of a fragmented status quo, with different foreign and regional actors possessing disparate interests within the country.

Firstly, there is the Russia-Iran-Assad axis. The Russians, through the form of military airstrikes, followed by supporting ground forces have aided the Assad regime in turning the tide against anti-government forces, as well as terrorist groups, such as the Islamic State (ISIL) and the Al-Nusra Front (the Al-Qaeda branch in Syria). Iran too has openly provided support to Assad’s Alawite dominated regime, primarily through its affiliate Hezbollah and other Shia-paramilitary units.

The United States under both former and present administrations, has signaled an unwillingness to get directly involved in the Syrian conflict, with currently 2,000 US troops mainly focused on the fight against ISIL in the region, part of the formation of the international combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve. Although, initially supportive, Washington gave up vetting and arming “moderate” Syrian rebels due to lackluster results, and shifted to supporting predominantly Kurdish paramilitary groups such as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who are more willing to fight the Jihadi extremists. In response to the alleged indiscriminate use of chemical weapons on civilian targets by the Assad government, the Americans have carried out precision airstrikes on Syrian military assets, to signal their indignation towards such atrocities.

The Turkish military along with its own aligned militia groups have led an occupation in Northern Syria targeting ISIL, and Kurdish militia groups, which Ankara deems as extremists. Under the operation, code-named Olive Branch, Turkish-backed forces have successfully captured former ISIL-held territory from US-backed Kurdish forces, much to the ire of its NATO ally, America.

The presence of Iranian-backed forces in Syria is of much concern to neighboring Israel, who have publicly avoided getting entangled in the Syrian morass. However, the Israelis have responded with force, by launching multiple airstrikes on Iranian and Syrian military positions, when the latter allegedly breached Israel’s airspace. Overall, intervention from foreign and regional rivals with their myriad of proxies have only served to prolong the conflict, and consequently exhausted the momentum of the revolution.

This then brings into focus the hurdles for a peaceful resolution. It would be typical to call for the removal of Assad from power for hopes of peace in Syria, however with Russia’s commitment to preserve the regime, the risk of direct conflict with Russian forces would be counteractive. Syria is of strategic importance as it hosts  Russia’s only naval base with access to the Mediterranean, which explains Moscow’s position. Furthermore, attempts by Washington to pursue an international investigation into the chemical attacks or the authorization for the use of force against Syria, have been constantly denied by Russia’s repeated veto at the U.N Security Council. The UN Charter mandates the use of force between states, either in self-defense or by authorization from the Security Council. Veto power is given to the five permanent members of the council – the US, UK, France, Russia, and China. Hence, this highlights another hindrance for resolving the crisis, as this international law has inadvertently allowed a single veto, to halt any US-led humanitarian intervention, or action to prevent further atrocities to civilian lives.

Frankly, considering the political, economic and human costs and repercussions of overthrowing Assad, and the lessons learned from Libya, the US and its western allies should re-evaluate their interests in Syria. Perhaps, even acknowledge that Assad should stay in power for the time being, no matter how bitter the reality, for the sake of the Syrian people and regional stability. However, the thought of pursuing a ceasefire and leaving peace-building strategies with a leader who’d readily use chemical weapons indiscriminately on his people is most unsettling, foreign and regional policymakers should help mediate for somewhat of an interim strategy to stabilize Syria.

This interim stabilization strategy would consist of partitioning Syria into administered territories, depending on the major faction controlling them. To make sure factions adhere to their allocated boundaries, it would be the duty of whichever external powers supporting them to supervise and guarantee a ceasefire between the distinct areas of control. For example, the US would supervise the Kurdish-controlled territories, presumably along Syria’s northern periphery, while Russia and Iran guarantees the Assad regime’s adherence to mainly pro-government enclaves stretching from the Southwest up to the Mediterranean coast bordering Turkey. A preferably external Sunni power, either Turkey, Saudi Arabia or even Jordan, should administer over the opposition-controlled areas such as Idlib and Deraa, to appease or mitigate sectarian tension.

Moreover, to further mitigate friction and chances of surprise skirmishes, de-escalation zones should be designated in between this controlled territories. A UN peacekeeping force, made up of troops from non-partisan countries, could be deployed to operate within these ‘buffer’ zones. Thorough consideration must be placed in selecting the troop-contributing parties for two reasons. Firstly, in order for this UN mission to be approved, its configuration must quell any doubts for a Russian veto in the Security Council, showing that the mission does not present a threat to Damascus. Hence, troop contributions from the currently involved countries would only undermine the impartiality of this UN mission. Secondly, it is critical that the Syrian people feel a certain degree of affinity to these peacekeepers and not view them as another foreign interferer. Finally, without seeming to support continuous violence or conflict, a separate mutual settlement should be made by the various policy makers, to continue the ongoing fight against ISIL and various Jihadi extremist groups outside the demarcated zones, as their operations would surely hinder peace-building or stabilization efforts for the country.

Attaining peace is unrealistic in a short time frame, but as a first step in the right direction, all the belligerents and powers backing them, should cease funding their proxies and start progressing towards disarmament and disbanding them. The Syrian people have suffered enough, approximately 6 million are internally displaced, with another 5 million overseas as refugees. While members of the international community are disputing over the management of the refugee crisis, more effort should be shifted to the source.