Syria: The forgotten war?

by Rev. Paul Lansu
Senior Policy Advisor

Peace in Syria remains far away. The concern and commitment of the international political community and by international civil society, including NGO’s and the churches, is very low. The war in Syria became a far from my bed show! The civil war is no longer the first item in the news. Does it even have a news value? I hope that the (forgotten) war remains a news item. Especially because of the many innocent victims of this conflict.

International institutions have not been able to prevent the conflict and/or to end it. United Nations’ diplomacy is not or insufficiently visible in Syria. That leaves the door open for others like Russia, Iran and partly Turkey to impose its strategy. Syria is on its way to becoming a Russian – Iranian protectorate.

UN-led talks appear stalled

We can only hope that, after more than 7 years of civil war, constructive (silent) diplomacy or “diplomacy behind the scenes” is in progress. It is said that different sets of peace talks continue but have made only modest progress. UN-led talks appear stalled, while the Syrian opposition is reluctant to join Russian-sponsored talks. Russia and Iran are backing President Bashar al-Assad politically and military. Assad wants to remain in power. Will this civil war be concluded by military victories? The answer will be partly true but in the end, one needs a political settlement. Many believe that it is Russia that is best placed to broker a deal. Russia has made good use of the political vacuum that the West has left behind.

Largest humanitarian disaster of this century

The war context is the worst of all worlds: Assad remains in power; Iran and Russia are emboldened; extremism has flourished; half a million Syrians have been killed; many killed by chemical weapons; thousands have been killed in the prisons; a humanitarian crisis of biblical proportions have been created; twelve million Syrians have fled their homes (half externally); destructions of large portions of major towns and cities; hospitals, schools and water supplies have been bombarded; and there is no end in sight!

The defeat of the Islamic State’s Caliphate in Syria and Iraq will not eradicate jihadism nor ISIS loyalists. However, the fight against ISIS is far from over. The current situation is that ISIS still exists despite large losses. They are still active in the east of Syria. That is at the border with Iraq. Many will go underground to fight another day in the same region or elsewhere in Afghanistan or Pakistan. ISIS still has a small but significant following abroad.

The military defeat of ISIS would not have been possible without the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party or PYD and the Arab groups that merged around it. The Kurdish question should be part of a final political settlement in the region. Turkey has historically had a difficult time with the Kurdish population not only in their own country but also in the wider region. Turkish leadership is willing to discuss possible autonomy but is against a separate Kurdish state.

Where is the political soft power of the EU?

The European Union is not speaking with one voice and remains divided. Some of the EU member states are under Russian or USA influence. The profile of EU foreign relations and policies is very low. Does the EU really have nothing to say?

The basic question is: will the EU in the future ever be able to play an important and significant role in international relations and especially in conflict mediation and conflict resolution?

Maybe the only dimension serious discussed within the EU is the humanitarian aid and the possible reconstruction. Since 2011, Syria has received over 9.5 billion euros in aid from the EU and its member states. Most of this is humanitarian aid. Emergency humanitarian relief is also a priority.

The EU on at least two instruments has made more money available: (1) on Contributing to Stability and Peace and (2) for Democracy and Human Rights. Member States do also focus on local-level projects supporting civil society at least in those parts of the country where that is possible as well as on tackling the root causes of displacement and reintegrating refugees. Local peace building is vital because high-level peace deals between elites tend not to guarantee deep-rooted stability.

Ceasefire and political settlement

Supporting democracy, human rights and stability at the local level is obviously very good, but first work has to be done on reaching a ceasefire by all parties involved and then work has to be done on negotiations that can, systematically, lead to an imposed peace for everyone.

At the same time, a political settlement should also include the right of return for the many refugees and displaced. There is no return to pre-war Syria. The psychological gap on return will be deep. Refugees can hardly imagine returning to, and building a future in, their areas of origin, which have so changed that these people feel they would be unable to adapt.

Only a political settlement can create the conditions for refugees to return, by bridging the gap between the old Syria and the post-war Syria to which refugees could imagine returning. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands Syrians have been integrated in Western nations or are living (in refugee camps) in neighbouring countries.

Continue to pay attention to possible escalation

Syria’s war may go on for some time. Extending the conflict to other countries is fortunately not happening. Nevertheless, any fighting might escalate rapidly. Especially Israel is in a permanent alert situation so as not to let the conflict escalate. Israel has grown fearful that Syria is becoming an Iranian base. Israel wants to prevent its rivals from consolidating a permanent military presence anywhere in Syria. The protection of Israeli citizens is their main priority.

The major open question is: what will be the post conflict political structure of Syria and how will a new Syria be integrated in the broader picture of the Middle East?

(Photo from https://www.thenational.ae/image/policy:1.789043:1541580029/Syria-Clearing-Yarmouk-Photo-Essay.jpg?f=16×9&w=1200&$p$f$w=03a7614)

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