Is the Syrian conflict ripe for peace?

The Syrian civil war began in 2011 after pro-democracy protesters took to the streets of Damascus. These dissenters were not met well by the Syrian regime, which responded with violence. The pro-democracy movement grew and the Syrian regime retaliated further by deploying the army to attack civilians. The current round of Syrian peace talks has been an uphill battle from the beginning. The United Nations’ mediator in the negotiations, Staffan de Mistura, suspended the talks after only three days, arguing that holding talks was, at that time, pointless as neither the Assad regime nor the opposition were willing to lay down arms. The talks were scheduled to begin again in late February, but as the dated neared de Mistura said the hopes of continuing the peace talks at that time were not realistic. A ceasefire was finally set to commence on February 27, but recent reports indicate a fragile peace, with sporadic fighting and air strikes taking place the very next day. The civil war has torn the country apart and, with foreign interests supporting the different warring factions, the road to a sustainable solution seems long and arduous. The question remains however; is Syria ripe for peace?

When the negotiations began in early February, the prospects for a peace treaty seemed faint, but the hope for one pushed the process forward. De Mistura’s main goal was to keep both sides communicating through indirect talks, not necessarily pushing for a peace agreement on day one of the talks. Despite the seeming impossibility of peace, the ripeness for peace is suggested to increase if the parties involved perceive there to be, what William Zartman calls, a “mutually enticing opportunity” (Grieg & Diehl, 2012, p. 126) to end hostilities. Convincing the leaders that they have more to gain by cooperating than fighting might direct both sides away from violent conflict even when both parties originally think it is impossible to do so. From here, good mediation and negotiation might enable the parties to commit to a peace agreement. However, the warring parties’ wish for an end of the Syrian conflict to end seems, at times, non-existent. Both sides want peace, but on their own terms. While the Syrian regime wants to regain their control over the country, the opposition desires a new government, free elections, and an end to Assad’s rule. The mutually exclusive nature of these aims mean that, until one or both of the sides decide to compromise, the conflict will continue, even after a ceasefire is declared.

There is also the matter of Daesh and the Al-Nusra Front, two Islamist terrorist organizations continuing their struggles to gain more control in the area and neither Assad nor the rebells are willing to negotiate with. Nor will any Kurdish organizations be represented in the negotiations. The geo-cultural area of Kurdistan makes up a substantial amount of Northern Syria and stretches into parts of Turkey. How can a long-term solution to the conflict be achieved without consideration of the Kurdish population? Kurdish separatists have already acted against Turkey historically, and they are actively fighting in Syria. If they are not included in the peace talks, what is to stop them from continuing their struggle?

A Syrian Air Force fighter plane fires a rocket during an air strike in the village of Tel Rafat, some 37 km (23 miles) north of Aleppo, August 9, 2012. Source: Flickr

A Syrian Air Force fighter plane fires a rocket during an air strike in the village of Tel Rafat, some 37 km (23 miles) north of Aleppo, August 9, 2012. Source: Flickr

A natural opportunity for peace talks appears when the costs of continued fighting are greater, for both parties, than that of a peace settlement. This situation occurs even in situations where it is hard for a mediator to negotiate a peace treaty that is attractive for the warring parties (Mooradian & Druckman, 1999). For the parties in the Syrian conflict to reach this point will, however, take a significant period of time. This is especially the case as foreign powers, invested in the conflict, continue to contribute resources and military aid to different groups.

An example of this can be seen in the recent offensive on Aleppo by the Assad regime, which was backed by Russian airstrikes. The BBC argued that this event might have risked the future of the peace talks but Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, proclaimed that the bombings would go on until the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front, which controls parts of Aleppo, is defeated. The Syrian government delegation stated, according to Russian state media Sputnik News, after the talks failed that it was the United States and Saudi Arabia that sabotaged the peace talks. The United States has itself supported various rebel groups in Syria, but when some of them were defeated, the weapons and equipment instead went into the hands of Daesh, which were previously using old Soviet weapons. Foreign intervention has succeeded arming the very group they aim to fight. The international community has agreed that the cessation of violence is necessary, but if any form of agreement can be decided upon, and be universally upheld, is yet to be seen.

The prospect of peace truly looks dim. If the peace talks succeed at all, they risk becoming a top-down, officially mediated end to violence. Animosity between the different groups on the grassroots level must be addressed by a long-term reconciliation effort in order to prevent the conflict from resurfacing. The ability to achieve this is complicated by three factors; the asymmetry between the Assad regime and a people that will possibly be disarmed by a peace treaty, the unanswered question of the Kurds, and the threat of Daesh and the al-Nusra Front. Until any treaty is put in place, the civilian population is stuck between the warring factions whilst simultaneously facing a humanitarian catastrophe. A fragile peace will give the populace a small sigh of relief, but given the major obstacles to lasting peace, a final solution to the conflict seems far away.

Erik Svensson

Offline References:

  • Grieg, J. Michael – Diehl, Paul F. 2012. International Mediation. Cambridge: Polity.
  • Mooradian, M. – Druckman, D. 1999. “Hurting Stalemate or Mediation? The Conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh 1990-95.”
    Journal of Peace Research 36(4): 709-727.