Peace or no peace, the Syrian conflict will not end for years

The Geneva talks, ongoing since February, 2016, have created cautious optimism that five years of bloodshed which has fractured Syria will come to a close and pave the way for peace in the wider region. However these hopes have come under enormous pressure since the coalition of Syrian jihadists and rebels launched a new offensive against the Syrian Armed Forces. These renewed attacks spanning north-western Syria and inside Latika and Hama comes as a response to the army's continued bombardment and attacks on rebel positions.

The underlying hostilities between rebel factions and government since the establishment of a ceasefire, and the animosity between jihadist cells and warlords across vast swathes of the north paints a grim picture for post-conflict Syria. There are numerous actors who have a vested interest in prolonging the overlapping conflicts and war economy which has developed.  As Nicholas Barker writes for Strife 'civil wars elevate 'specialists in violence' to positions of political authority, militarising local governance, and many studies have explored how these violent entrepreneurs are generally unwilling to relinquish wartime gains in power and status once the fighting has stopped.'

Sectarian violence perpetrated by state-sponsored Alawite militias, ethnic cleansing by ethno-nationalist Kurdish groups, and the horrors of ISIS acting in conjunction to Assad's bloody military operations has irrevocably changed Syria's political landscape. Such brutality complicates disarmament, building trust between different parties, and reconciliation and even then realising  such peace-building initiatives is decades away. 

Western policymakers will not repeat the mistake of dismantling Syria's political and military infrastructure, as Paul Bremer did in 2003 with the Baathist party in Iraq, and Moscow have clearly stated that the current Syrian government holds power in Damascus.  These factors will matter little in Western geopolitical calculations. While the removal of Assad and creating a pro-Western Syria is no longer an option, a Syria wracked by instability, barely held up by Iran and Russia, and where the government does not have a monopoly on the violence or territory will suit U.S policymakers as supposed to a strong Syria which threatens its allies and interests. There is no need to prove malign intent on the part of the Western powers and the consequences of such destabilisation far outweigh the geo-political gains which has weakened key allies Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, produced a crippling refugee crisis, and left scores of civilians dead across Europe in a wave of terrorist attacks. 

The current violence will have ramifications which will go beyond the 'official' closure of the Syrian war. Syria remains a state, however as Lakhdar Brahimi noted in Der Spiegel "...there are fears Syria would become another Somalia...a collapsed state with warlords all over the place." A settlement in Geneva will do little for the fractured country and the Syrian government will remain in perpetual war with the assortment of rebels dotted across the country. Terrorist organisations such as Jahbat al-Nusra remain a powerful foe and will have little interest in relinquishing the power they have accumulated in the rebels coalition, nor will ISIS's leaders be considered a faction which diplomats can realistically negotiate with unless they tackle its support base (for example addressing Sunni grievances in Syria and Iraq). 

Image/BBC: Syria 2016

Image/BBC: Syria 2016

The new political space has opened up a political vacuum for sectarian and tribal discourse, criminality and terrorism and a flourishing war economy.  Equally, despite being under bombardment by an array of international actors, Raqqa  and ISIS's surrounding territory in north-western Syria still awaits a ground-assault which will take months to prepare and execute in coordination with attempts to recapture Mosul in Iraq. In the aftermath of the destruction of ISIS's 'caliphate' it is almost certain there will be scrambling as different actors claim territory and prestige and prepare for the next wave of violence which will hit the region.

The subsequent counterinsurgency campaign to uproot ISIS and jihadist groups when the groups revert to classic asymmetrical and urban warfare will be prolonged and bloody in both Syria and Iraq as exemplified by the concentrated suicide bombings around Baghdad which have occurred since ISIS lost territory in Tikrit, Ramadi and Sinjar. As with the Obama administration's 'official' departure from Iraq where the Iraq war (2003 - 2011) never really ended, Syria's conflict will roll on.  A violent counterinsurgency campaign by Assad's ground forces against jihadists spearheaded by U.S and British drone attacks and sustained aerial attacks by Russian aircraft will do little to encourage the Syrian refugees flooding Jordan, Lebanon and Europe to return to Syria. The refugee crisis is swiftly becoming tied to Syria's long-term problems which European and Middle Eastern states will have to face. 

Defeating extremist groups such as ISIS and Al-Qa'ida in Syria, establishing a negotiated settlement and removing Assad who is loathed by the opposition and wider international community will not end the war.  Renewed civil war will occur even with his departure and even if Syria's political institutions are conserved as actors, old and new, fight for the spoils of war and maneuver into positions of power that suit their interests and their capacity to influence Syria's future. 

This horrific cycle is, naturally, the most inefficient means of pursuing peace across the region. However for the most powerful actors in Syria today, including Assad, Al-Qa'ida, militant Kurdish groups and ISIS, violence is the best option for cementing their short-term and long-term interests.

Syria has fast become a new Afghanistan, a state prone to bouts of serious internal violence, low-intensity tribal, ethnic and sectarian warfare and a country that has become a transnational haven for regional and global terrorist organisations. It follows the path of Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Pakistan where a vast array of actors with different ideological and territorial agendas define the political and territorial landscape rather than a single, conventional state authority. Such a future offers scant regard for human rights and a democratic transition, such an environment means open-ended war and a fragmented, divided nation, and such a state offers nothing but a bleak future for the Syrian people.

Matthew Williams