How do we move from powerlessness and complexity to a diplomatic solution and lasting peace in Syria?

by Rev. Paul Lansu
Senior Policy Advisor

In the Arab world, Damascus, Syria’s capital, has always been one of the great centres of power, culture and influence, together with Cairo and Baghdad. Since 2011, the Syrian Arab Republic has been embroiled in a sectarian and geopolitical conflict of sustained and terrifying violence. The bitter civil unrest and war in Syria is approaching its seventh year in March 2018.

The years before the violence

From 2006 to 2011, there was an historic drought in Syria and the surrounding countries, the worst in nine hundred years. In the northeast of the country, which was heavily agricultural, more than 60 percent less rain fell, more than four-fifths of livestock was starving or had to be slaughtered, the share of agriculture in the gross domestic product in Syria was minus almost 10 percent, and 800,000 people lost their livelihood. Many of those people went to cities, mainly Damascus and Aleppo, where they lived in the slums where, in 2011, the riots began that finally led to civil war.

Certainly, the years of persistent hunger, in which hundreds of thousands of Syrian rural residents had to live on bread and sweetened tea, led to a wave of displacement to big cities, with no jobs for these recent migrants. This wave of migration and the growing desperation of the suffering population caused a powder keg where a small spark was enough to destroy an entire country.

In Syria, the strong population growth (from 6.5 million inhabitants in 1970 to almost 23 million in 2013) had a substantial role in the eruption of violence. The interweaving of population growth, climate change and organised violence will increasingly occur, resulting in problems in the future.

Undoubtedly, the events in 2011, including Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab countries, led to growth for change and democratisation within the young Syrian population.

When it rains in Cairo, it will drip in Damascus!

This uprising has not been about a person or a party. It was a collective effort to own politics and to seek ownership of Syria. People strove for things like the right to talk about public issues and gather in public spaces. Syrians were confronted with brute force from the very start. President Assad wanted to crush the will of his own people. This led to the militarisation of the uprising. It triggered uncontrollable dynamics of radicalisation, Islamisation, and sectarianisation, which led to a breakdown in the national framework of the struggle and the influx of wandering global jihadis, as well as inviting regional and international interventions.

Unseen number of people were affected by the violence

In a civil war spawned by demonstrations against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the southern city of Dera’a in March 2011, by December 2017 more than 13.5 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance, with 6.3 million people displaced internally (some have had to move several times), and an additional 5.4 million fleeing as refugees to sanctuary in Lebanon (1 million – where Syrians now make up a fifth of the population), Jordan, Turkey (3 million) and even turbulent Iraq. By the spring of 2016, Syria’s death toll, according to the United Nations, had reached at least 400,000 and ancient cities such as Aleppo and Homs had been devastated.

A mix of armed fighters!

Initially, the fight against the regime was spearheaded by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), formed by defecting officers from the Syrian armed forces. Its political equivalent was the Syrian National Council (SNC), formed in the summer of 2011 in Istanbul and beset from the start by ideological and ethnic frictions in a membership that included not just Sunnis and Christians but also Kurds, Muslim Brothers and even representatives of the tiny Assyrian minority. In November 2012, the SNC joined with other opposition groups to form the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces – also known as the Syrian National Coalition — and was recognised in December 2012 by the USA, France and the Gulf Arab states as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. The effectiveness of this coalition has been questioned right from the beginning.

Meanwhile some Islamic groups, notably Jabbat al-Nusra, refused to join the coalition. The FSA began to be supplanted by Islamist groups supported by some Gulf states. Many jihadist groups remained independent of the Islamic Front. There are said to be as many as 1,000 armed opposition groups struggling for advantage. In recent years, rebel groups have been fighting not just the Syrian regime but each other as well.

The Syrian armed forces have been crushing the opposition with modern Russian armaments. The Syrian regime employed extreme brutality, from chemical attacks on civilians to the use of barrel bombs, dropped from helicopters without discrimination on civilian populations supposedly hostile to the government.

Large gap filled by ISIS/Daesh

It is in this mess of division and political disagreement that the Islamic State (ISIS/Daesh) was able to fill a large gap in 2014 by issuing a caliphate in Syria (and part in Iraq), a state defined by belief, not ethnicity or nationality. ISIS rejected the existing state borders as originated by the Sykes-Picot (secret) agreement between Britain and France in 1916. ISIS not only allows but advocates brutal violent conflict to achieve legal and political aims.

Since 2014, ISIS has committed mass atrocities and war crimes on a scale that is hard to fathom, sanctioning violence against Shiite Muslims, indigenous Christian populations, Yazidis, Druze, and others. It has enslaved some members of these ethnic minorities – in many cases under the most brutal possible conditions. It also extended violence to Sunni Muslims who do not subscribe to the particular brand of Islam preached by their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, or those whose governments cooperate with the USA and Europe. Several thousands of ISIS fighters came from abroad. For instance, about 1,500 jihadists with Russian passports were said to be fighting in Syria (and Iraq) in early 2015. The USA took the lead in an international coalition launching air strikes on ISIS first in Iraq and later on in Syria.

Who holds the keys for diplomacy?

The fighting is still not over. Today, the Syria regime has the upper hand in the conflict largely due to Iranian and Russian backing. Diplomatic efforts at the UN and in several rounds of talks in Geneva and Astana, and lately in Sochi, have failed to find a political solution to the continuing horrors in Syria. Some warring parties refused to talk to other armed and political groups in negotiations, excluding the others. Regional and international powers disagree on a settlement.

The rebels and most outside powers insisted that President Assad would have to go into exile. He always refused and has been supported heavily by Russia, Iran and other countries. Clearly, the conflict has been not only regionalised but also internationalised. There cannot be a military solution to Syria’s agony – and the agony can continue for many years to come.

An extra complication is the Kurdish question. Kurdish armed groups have been involved in the fighting both in Syria as in Iraq. Ankara will never permit the creation of an autonomous Kurdish state along its southern border – autonomous, de facto, or de jure. In combating ISIS, the Kurdish YPG (Popular Protection Units) held out the implicit hope that finally Kurds would be “rewarded” with some form of “state” recognition. Turkey is fighting a “war after the war” in Syria against elements of the Syrian Kurds, groups that have also been partners in defeating ISIS. Russia is committing Turkey in this offensive against the Kurds in that part of Syria.

It will clearly take many more years for the Syrian people to recover from its horrors. This civil war has also diminished the USA’s influence and increased that of Russia, Iran and Turkey, not least with their espousal of the Astana peace talks.

Russia has the keys

Ultimately at issue is Syria’s future as a unified nation. Given the years of bloodshed and brutality, some kind of federal system may be the only way to keep Syria’s religious and ethnic mosaic from shattering beyond repair. Moscow keeps a strong key in its hand and wants to see a solid centralised government in Damascus. Russia intervened in September 2015 in Syria in support of the regime of al-Assad. In the following years Russian air strikes against ISIS and other rebel groups not only changed the tenor of the Syrian civil war but also gave Russia a leading role in peace talks. Russia has invested a great deal in Syria and now strives to maintain its long-term presence in the Levant. It is interested in having a stable and reliable regime in Damascus capable of serving its objectives. However, Russia has no interest in funding, and not the capacity to fund Syria’s post- conflict reconstruction.

Towards cease fire, negotiations, solutions and reconstruction?

The various peace initiatives aimed at helping Syria should continue in a constructive climate of growing trust between parties, so that the lengthy conflict that has caused such immense suffering can finally end. The time for a cease fire, negotiations, solutions and rebuilding has now come. This whole process should be in the hands of the United Nations.

Yet even more than rebuilding material structures, it is necessary to rebuild hearts, to re-establish the fabric of mutual trust, which is the essential prerequisite for the flourishing of any society. There is a need, then, to promote the legal, political and security conditions that restore a social life where every citizen, regardless of ethnic and religious affiliation, can take part in the development of the country. In this regard, it is vital that religious minorities be protected, including Christians, who for centuries have made an active contribution to Syria’s history.

(Photo by Muzzafar Salman, Reuters, at

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