The past few weeks have produced a number of new developments in international and regional dynamics in the Syrian conflict. Opposition forces downed a Russian bomber in Idlib countryside; the United States conducted air strikes against forces loyal to the Syrian regime east of the Euphrates River; Kurdish forces took out a Turkish helicopter near Afrin, north of Aleppo; and an Israeli F-16 fighter destroyed an unmanned aircraft over the Golan. Turkey has also opened a new battlefront against the Kurds in Afrin (Operation Olive Branch) and extremist groups have launched attacks against government forces. The United Nations is struggling to reach a sustainable ceasefire for Ghouta while the situation continues to deteriorate. Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement (during his visit to the Russian base of Hmeimim late last year) on the withdrawal of Russian troops after what he called “the defeat of the strongest international terrorist groups,” Islamic State elements (ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh) are still launching attacks on regime-controlled civilian and military areas in the Deir Ezzor countryside as the Nusra Front consolidates its administrative control over Idlib in northwest Syria.
The illusion of ending conflict
In an interview with SyriaSource, Syrian political researcher Socrates al-Aluw stressed that the Syrian parties no longer have an impact on the conflict in Syria, adding that conflicting international and regional interests should be considered the main reason behind the continued conflict.
No one has any real answer on how to end the conflict in Syria. Executive Director of the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies Radwan Ziadeh sees a bleak picture for the prospect of peace. In a phone interview, he noted that the Syrian crisis “could go on for another two years or more,” adding that ending the conflict today is “a pipe dream.” Ziadeh, having held a number of positions working on transitional justice and participating in the development of the democratic transition plan in Syria, noted that the Syrian crisis consists of a three-tiered conflict: the first is an international one between Washington and Moscow; the second is regional between Turkey, Iran, and Israel; the third is due to the internal dispute between the Syrian opposition and the regime. According to him, any solution requires a serious commitment from all parties to abide by the relevant UN resolutions and the roadmap outlined in UN Security Council resolution 2254, but said that such a course is unlikely under the current circumstances.
The Syrian peace talks reached their ninth round under the auspices of the United Nations. The last round held in the Austrian capital Vienna resulted in the Syrian regime delegation’s refusal to enter into direct negotiations with the opposition on the grounds that it was unrepresentative and insists on preconditions (referring to the opposition’s demand for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s departure).
In Fred Iklé’s book on the Vietnam War, Every War Must End, he posits three scenarios for an end to any conflict. The first involves separation, where he considers the creation of a geographical division between parties to the conflict a solution in the event that one party cannot win militarily. The second involves a commitment to implement international resolutions. The third option discusses eliminating or marginalizing spoilers. In applying this perspective to the situation in Syria, one could say that no solution yet exists. The main parties reject the principle of separation (as seen in recent developments). All international resolutions focus on preserving Syria’s territorial integrity, yet all parties violate international resolutions on a daily basis, demonstrating their lack of commitment. Furthermore, many militant, local, and international groups can prevent a resolution that contravenes their interest, whether through outright rejection or sabotage.
The distant dream of peace
“The UN Security Council failed to reach an agreement on a temporary ceasefire in Syria at a time when the situation is more dangerous in several areas, notably in Eastern Ghouta near Damascus…” Last week, Bassam upset by the turn of events, shut off the radio before the announcer finished the story. He turned to his wife, saying, “We’ve entered a storm from which there is no escape.” But he went unanswered; she was engaged in sewing bits of cloth to hang in the doorway, as the door was to be used as fuel for cooking.
Bassam, 37, lives with his wife and two children in the city of Douma in the Damascus countryside, in Eastern Ghouta. The Syrian opposition took control of the province in 2012 and is completely besieged by Assad’s forces. Jan Egeland, the Special Advisor to the UN Special Envoy for Syria, was quoted on the UN website as saying that “humanitarian diplomacy seems to be totally impotent” given that authorities had long blocked humanitarian access to the besieged areas. He noted that the last convoy of international aid to the area took place in November 2017, considering this the worst time experienced by aid agencies since 2015.
“Life is no longer unbearable,” Bassam said in a video interview on Skype. “There is no sign of an end to the crisis and a return to normal life,” he said. Bassam is used to the constant bombardment, lack of food, and lack of electricity, but he also says that he is tired, always thinking of “days of the past” when he could move without fear and get the most delicious food.
“Ordinary Syrians are the weakest party in the conflict,” Radwan Ziadeh said. “They pay the highest price in the destruction of their cities, homes, and social lives.” The constant focus on events from the devastated Syrian opposition areas obscures the wider picture in Syria. “The chance for a normal life shrinks more and more,” says Farah, 27, who lives in the al-Jisr al-Abyad area of central Damascus, despite dwindling bombardment of the city by the Syrian opposition forces. “I’m always worried, the sound of bullets is continuous,” she said. “Sometimes I think what if the pilot makes a mistake and bombs our area or the plane crashes…it is terrifying.”
“There is no future in Syria,” Farah said over the phone. “And no ability to make decisions going forward. I don’t know the solution, or maybe there is no solution,” she said, sighing. She noted that there are great difficulties in regime-held areas: a lack of employment opportunities exacerbated by high inflation and the continuous interruption of electricity and water.
Bassam from Douma hopes only for a better future for his two children, he says, and considers peace in Syria a dream for all of Syria. He stresses, however, that this peace will only come through “the birth of a new Syria, free of criminals, and tyranny.” Farah hopes for Syria to return as it was, saying, “The success of the peace process would be a gift from God to us Syrians.”
Ghaith al-Ahmad works as a journalist for The New Arab. He previously worked as a media coordinator for the Syrian Red Crescent in Deir Ezzor.