The Syrian conflict has long since ceased to be merely about Syria. Over the past six years, what began as a civil war of disheartened citizens opposing an autocrat transformed into a chaotic proxy war, involving a staggering number of stakeholders.
As described by the Spiegel Online, “the country has become Ground Zero of global geopolitics.” While Russia’s inflexible backing of the Assad regime disguises its desire to reaffirm its superpower status, the US perseveres with its immutable foreign policy consisting of doing away with world leaders it does not approve of and simultaneously confronting the growing ambitions of its Russian counterpart. Rivalrous Iran and Saudi Arabia back the Assad regime and the rebels, respectively, due to sectarian divisions. Increasingly authoritarian Turkey, who began fiercely opposing Assad by fuelling Islamist groups, now oppose the West. Finally, the region’s Islamist groups terrorize a helpless EU in the midst of crisis.
Naturally, in light of these clashing political agendas, the situation has been characterized by paralysis and the international community has stood still in the face of the suffering of the Syrian people. This standstill has been embodied by the UN Security Council’s inability to come to an agreement that could alleviate the plight of the population. The routine veto issued by Russia and its Chinese ally has been the main obstruction to action.
In spite of disagreement, parties have admitted that the most preferable solution would be to find a political settlement to the Syrian crisis, involving the setting up of a transitional government and elections that would allow the Syrian people to finally have their voices heard. The main point of contention was the place that Assad would occupy in this transition, with Russia maintaining that Assad should remain a prevalent figure of the post-war government, and the US and its allies making the point that he should not.
Despite the difficulty setting up such a solution due to conflicting views, the involved parties still believed it to be within their reach. However, the fall of Aleppo to the hands of Assad last December shattered hopes concerning the viability of such a settlement. It has been thought that, emboldened by his success, Assad will not relinquish power and will be less willing to make concessions.
Is the desired political settlement doomed to failure now that Assad has captured Aleppo? What future can we expect for Syria?
While it is evident that the fall of Aleppo does not ease the path to achieving a political settlement, it should not be assumed that the political solution is now altogether out of reach.
To the contrary, it should be made clear that, while Assad may have won a battle, he has not won the war. His control over the country is negligible and consolidating his advances is likely to drain the regime of its already scarce resources.
Rebels, on the other hand, still possess numerous strongholds throughout the nation and Assad’s recent success might trigger retaliation on their part. It is likely to stir further radicalization of the rebel factions, who, dispirited and unwilling to surrender, could search for draconian solutions to their disarray.
Although this situation might delay the end of the war, the warring parties caught in this vicious cycle may realize that, because none have the upper hand, a military solution is unrealistic. This awareness may have the benefit of them agreeing on the need for a political solution, which could resort to them making concessions at the negotiating table.
Additionally, the Assad regime remains critically reliant on his foreign backers and, despite the shift in balance due to the capture of Aleppo, the Russian readiness to support him and continue the fighting is likely to wane over the coming months. In light of the recent Astana talks held at Russia’s initiative, it has become apparent that Russia desires to operate as a power broker from this point on and to decrease its military involvement in Syria, further reducing the possibility of a military solution.
The Trump administration now in power could also be less fussy regarding the terms of a political settlement. They may allow Assad to be part of it and, therefore, ease the divergence between the two powers. Although far from ideal, this situation would at least freeze parts of the armed struggle and give the Syrian people the opportunity to rebuild their country.
In the aftermath of Aleppo one should not be fatalistic. Although distant, the political solution remains viable. The matter is not whether a political settlement to the crisis is possible; going forward, the real issue is how a political settlement that includes Assad will untangle.
The first step will be to reduce the complexity characteristic of the Syrian crisis. As stated by the Guardian, “making peace between multiple factions is like three-dimensional chess” and there will be a need to try to seize every opportunity to strike deals with the different factions in due time. It is unrealistic to expect the Syrian regime to strike a peace deal with all of its opponents at once.
Nevertheless, as Sultan Barakat told Aljazeera, however successful in reducing the complexity, the difficulty will be that “some remnants of the armed opposition will neither be defeated nor incorporated into a political settlement and any peace agreement is likely to coexist alongside efforts to combat on-going resistance.” Not all will be ready to accept a deal that includes Assad, which will lead to a bumpy political settlement.
After six years of war and the complexity of the conflict, it can be expected that the rebuilding of institutions will not be easy, especially if the goal is to reframe Syria as a unitary state. Many backroom deals and informal agreements may be created along the road, which could “prove to be an immense handicap on Syria’s formal institutions,” Barakat said. It may be important to envision a more decentralized set of institutions to appease tensions. However, there is the risk that institutions will be highly mistrusted by citizens if Assad remains.
All in all, the help and monitoring of the international community will be essential, whether financially or to ensure the building of new resilient institutions and to deal with the remaining threats.
A lot remains unknown concerning Syria’s road to peace, but some say the conflict is now in its last phases. The likelihood that Assad will be part of the next chapters of Syria’s history is high and the path forward will not be without trouble. Nevertheless, if it can put an end to the six years of Syrian suffering, it may be a lesser evil. It is therefore time to start planning ahead for Syria’s future.