As the Syrian civil war enters its sixth year, official UNHCR reports indicate that over 470,000 deaths have been recorded (as of February 2016), 6.1 million people have been internally displaced, and 4.8 million are seeking refuge abroad, appropriately describing the crisis as “the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era”.
What began as peaceful protests were violently suppressed by the Syrian government, led by Bashar Al-Assad, causing mass uprisings and plunging the region into a civil war. The deadly conflict begs the question, why does the civil war continue? Whilst studies of intra-state violence indicate the longevity of civil wars, there are identifiable characteristics of the Syrian conflict that explain its prolonged nature.
Foreign military intervention and the conflicting interests of key players in the international field are sustaining the conflict. On the one hand, there are the pro-Assad forces being supported by Russian airstrikes and Shia militias, and on the other side is the Sunni-dominated opposition with support from historically anti-Assad countries, Turkey and Arab Gulf states. Intertwined in this web of conflict are the Salafi-jihadist groups, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, a former al-Qaeda affiliate, and Daesh who have capitalized on the regions instability.
The 2014 US-led coalition was committed to weakening and destroying Daesh and unseating Assad and therefore provided assistance to moderate rebel groups. Kurdish fighters have been a key US ally in fighting Daesh, yet are regarded as terrorists by Turkey, further causing internal tensions.
President Vladimir Putin has consistently defended Russia’s actions in Syria as aiming to “stabilize the legitimate authority,” and have thus far vetoed any sanctions against the Assad regime as proposed by the Security Council. The Obama administration had openly condemned Russia’s responses to the crisis and their conflicting interests had fueled and inevitably prolonged the conflict, plunging Russia and the US into a proxy war.
The changing dynamic of the Syrian civil war further explains its resistance to a solution. The conflict began as a protest for political change, a protest that was a secular revolt. However, violent insurgency has resurfaced with sectarian overtones. It is perhaps justified to claim that the varying ethno-religious identities in Syria surpass an attempted construct of national identity. This is exemplified through the numerous warring opposition parties in the region who have been unable to unify despite their mutual stance against the loyalists. The minority Alawite government had remained in power without any previous opposition because stable political structures allowed this. With the corrosion of political legitimacy, these ethno-sectarian identities have become more apparent and stability of the region must now address and accommodate for these differences, if any attempt at peace is to be attained.
Earlier this week, Syrian peace talks started in Astana. Sponsored by Russia, Turkey, and Iran, this has been the first time Syrian generals and rebel commanders have sat around the same table for negotiations. In theory, the talks are hopeful. Opposition spokesman Aridi remarked, ‘if they are quite successful, there could be a product, a political one, that could be used in the Geneva talks’. Negotiations are concentrating on a ceasefire and humanitarian aid. Whilst this is important in creating temporary stability, the issue of reaching a sustainable political deal is still in question.
Notably, there appears to be a shift in Western policy surrounding responses to the conflict. In light of the rebel opposition defeat in Aleppo, UK Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, made a U-turn on earlier remarks and conceded that re-election of Bashar al-Assad could be allowed. Washington’s position remains unclear. President Donald Trump has been explicit in his aims to defeat Daesh, but whether this translates as rapprochement with Russia, and consequently the movement towards Assad’s reinstatement into legitimate power, remains to be seen.
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