Given the complexity of the Syrian civil war and its disparate combatants, George Friedman assesses the chances of bringing an end to this bloody and far-reaching conflict.
In a notable breakthrough in negotiations, the International Syria Support Group agreed during a November 14 meeting in Vienna to convene Syrian government and opposition representatives on January 1, 2016, in formal negotiations under the auspices of the United Nations. The support group, made up of virtually every direct and indirect foreign state participant in the Syrian civil war, has aspired to find a solution to the destabilising Syrian civil war, and progress has increasingly appeared to be within reach. However, serious obstacles remain that could rapidly undermine any gains the group hopes to accomplish going forward.
The current timeline for the peace plan agreed to by the International Syria Support Group is as follows: By December 14, the group will reconvene to review progress so that the United Nations can seek to convene Syrian government and opposition groups in formal negotiations by January 1, 2016. By May 14, 2016, a ceasefire between Syrian government and opposition groups will come into force, allowing the process for drafting a new constitution to begin. Finally, by May 14, 2017, UN-administered free elections will be held under the new constitution, ushering in a new government and, hopefully, bringing an end to fighting in the country.
The International Syria Support Group’s aim is to get the foreign state participants in the Syrian conflict to reach an agreement on a solution to the country’s civil war that would then be presented to the Syrians. The Washington Post reported that to facilitate the ceasefire, actors in the International Syria Support Group will stop all support and supplies to ‘various belligerents’ on both sides once negotiations are underway.
Despite the latest initiative’s ambitious goals, it is still unlikely that the plan will result in an effective end to the conflict. The following issues will prevent further progress in finding a solution:
The fact that no Syrian group from either the loyalist or rebel side was included in the negotiations points to the stark divisions that will plague the peace process. This was deliberate: the United States and other negotiating partners wanted to minimise friction during the talks so that the international group of negotiating powers could present a unified message to the key players in Syria.
However, the fact remains that while it will be difficult for the foreign powers to reach a consensus, it will be even harder for the warring parties on the ground in Syria. There are simply too many armed forces of varying ideologies and motivations driving the conflict.
The opposition picture
One of the principal difficulties in reaching an agreement, even at this early stage, is agreeing on which rebel groups should lead—let alone be included as representatives of—the opposition in the talks, if and when the talks take place. Even powers that support the rebels have significantly differing opinions. The United States, for instance, has long sought to mainly include the Free Syrian Army. However, it was recently reported that the US, under pressure from Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, also conceded to accepting Ahrar al-Sham as a core opposition group.
The Kurdish question is another unresolved issue that does not appear to have been addressed in the latest meeting or subsequent agreement. Turkey will undoubtedly be wary of any significant role given to the Syrian Kurds in upcoming negotiations, while the Kurds are sure to push for greater autonomy, conflicting with both the wider rebel and loyalist positions.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle, however, is the sheer number of armed rebel organisations in the civil war. Hundreds of groups, from the very small to the very powerful, such as the Army of Islam, Ahrar al-Sham and the wider Free Syrian Army, are fighting in Syria. Reaching a consensus on a rebel negotiating position when the rebels themselves can only really agree on the need for President Bashar al-Assad’s downfall, could critically undermine the negotiation process.
Even with a negotiated agreement between rebel groups and Damascus, the Syrian civil war would not completely stop because two major terrorist groups—the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra—would remain. The Islamic State is an uncontroversial issue since virtually all armed forces in Syria are the Islamic State’s enemies. The group’s attacks in Paris have also made an end to the Syrian crisis even more desirable, though the issue always had some measure of urgency. But the inclusion of Jabhat al-Nusra and similar groups on the terrorist list would considerably complicate the situation and threatens to unravel any potential agreement.
Several rebel groups, including Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham and the largely secular Free Syrian Army, have operated and continue to operate closely with Jabhat al-Nusra. Convincing these rebel groups to disentangle themselves from their alliances with Jabhat al-Nusra, whether those alliances are ideological or out of convenience, will be difficult. It would be even more challenging to convince the same rebel groups to stop fighting the loyalist forces and turn their guns on Jabhat al-Nusra.
At the same time, continued strikes on Jabhat al-Nusra in such a narrow and clearly saturated battlefield could also rapidly undermine the negotiation process as other rebel groups are damaged. The Russians have previously struck Free Syrian Army allies of Jabhat al-Nusra, essentially arguing that they operate together and are therefore the same. The Russians will be keen to maximise the number of rebel groups on the terrorist list, likely forcing certain rebel factions into breaking from any negotiation process altogether.
Finally, Jabhat al-Nusra is hardly the only extremist group within the rebel landscape beyond the Islamic State. Jihadist groups such as Jabhat Ansar al-Din and Jund al-Aqsa maintain similar or even more extreme ideological positions. These groups will be especially opposed to a ceasefire pushed from abroad and will likely continue operations even as loyalist and rebel factions seek peace.
Any effort to force belligerents in the conflict to agree to a ceasefire by withdrawing supplies and support will be complicated by the fact that many of the International Syria Support Group members are themselves active participants in the conflict. Iran and Russia are present on the ground in a fighting capacity, while the United States is increasingly inserting itself into the conflict in support of its Syrian Democratic Forces allies. These nations, as well as others such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, could claim that support given to their respective proxies is meant to combat the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, rather than other loyalist or rebel forces. All sides will have an incentive to ensure their own preferred groups are better advantaged if and when they reach the negotiating table, making it extremely difficult to halt the flow of all supplies in practice.
Moreover, the International Syrian Support Group process deliberately omitted the question of the Syrian president’s future in its most recent meeting. The group’s members readily admit that al-Assad’s position is a polarising issue, and many fear that raising the issue would undermine progress before it even begins. However, this only highlights the disputes that have yet to be settled in the process.
Ultimately, Russia and Iran are not entirely committed to ensuring al-Assad’s personal leadership of Syria as long as their interests are met, but stepping in to convince al-Assad to leave power—let alone successfully doing so—is a step both Tehran and Moscow would only take when they are truly comfortable with the talks’ progress. But at this stage, the obstacles that still lie ahead make getting there as distant a prospect as ever.