Journalist and former Guardian reporter
If you follow the news, you may have assumed that the crisis in Syria is over. Gone are the daily reports of massive civilian suffering inflicted by Russian-backed government military campaigns, the latest atrocity that sends thousands fleeing for the border, or yet another outrage committed by ISIS extremists. As far as the international community is concerned, all is quiet on the Syrian front. Bashar al-Assad has won the war in Syria.
This view is shortsighted. A divided Syria remains a tinder box of regional insecurity. While the regime has reclaimed most of the country, portions remain under rebel control. Proxy fighters backed by Turkey still hold sway over regions abutting the northern border. Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the latest iteration of a former affiliate of al-Qaeda, controls most of Idlib, a northwestern province. Hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians remain trapped in crowded tent settlements by the Turkish border, afraid of returning home in case the bombing resumes.
In government-controlled areas, the situation has deteriorated to levels of suffering perhaps worse than at the height of the war. The country is not only impoverished by years of war and destruction, but also locked out of the international financial system by American and European Union sanctions. Instability and distrust have scuttled nascent reconstruction efforts. The government continues to imprison and torture dissidents and critics of every stripe, the currency has collapsed, the economy is in freefall, and the coronavirus pandemic is ravaging the most vulnerable populations. Medics and local commentators report that the official number of over 3,000 infections is a huge underestimate.
This combination of factors represents a major threat to al-Assad's rule, making it impossible for him to govern the country with any semblance of normalcy. The only solution to this deadly stalemate is an all-encompassing peace settlement that attempts to reconcile the basic demands of the regional and global powers that have turned Syria's main protagonists — regime and opposition alike — into vassals. The government's military victory, and its record of obstinacy and obstruction in negotiations, are the major obstacles to a fair and equitable peace process that grapples with the enormity of loss and destruction. Nevertheless, some elements of a peace treaty that deal with questions beyond the pivotal issue of who rules Syria are worth outlining, because the complexity of the crisis precludes straightforward solutions. These elements are likely to include military, transitional justice and political components.
One critical issue is the militarization and balkanization of the country, with competing extremist militias on all sides of the war, many of which are backed by competing foreign powers. On the rebel side, HTS has gone to great lengths to publicly sever its relations with al-Qaida, embed itself in governance structures, and ingratiate itself with local communities. But the group's former affiliation will remain an obstacle to its participation in peace talks, as it is still an officially designated terrorist group by the US Administration. If HTS proves to have staying power and the current stalemate persists, it may eventually achieve a position akin to the Taliban, as an enemy slash negotiating partner of the US. This may end up being the case, especially if Turkey continues to protect Idlib from regime advances – as it did in March when a government campaign sent hundreds of thousands of civilians fleeing to the border.
On the government side, several Shia militias aligned with Iran, including Hezbollah and elements of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), have been a key component of its ground forces, numbering in the thousands. These militias played an important role in the regime's survival prior to Russia's entry into the war.
In addition, proxy rebel forces aligned with Turkey have been instrumental in Ankara's campaign against the Syrian Kurdish militias, and they still control territory in Syria's north. Turkey treats the rebel forces, ironically called the National Army, as an auxiliary to its own military, deploying thousands of its fighters in Libya to protect the government in Tripoli of Fayez al-Sarraj, with the hope of leveraging its presence into a more favorable geopolitical position in negotiations over fossil fuel exploration in the Mediterranean.
A sustainable peace deal must find some way of peacefully liquidating the militias, such as having them surrender their arms in exchange for measurable concessions and reforms, or absorbing them into national structures. Foreign militias must ultimately withdraw from the country if it is to achieve any semblance of normalcy. Under an eventual peace deal, however, a mechanism can be drawn up that transforms non-extremist rebel fighters, like the factionalized Turkish-backed rebel army, into a peacekeeping force that neutralizes the remnants of terrorist groups like the al-Qaeda-affiliated Hurras al-Din, ISIS sleeper cells, warlords that refuse to give up their arms, and potentially HTS as well., Refusing to negotiate a viable reconciliation mechanism will spell long-term instability for Assad.
The government of Syria will certainly want to wish away and bury under the proverbial rug the record of its past abuses. But determining the fate of detainees can act as a first step towards a national reckoning with the horrific losses of the last ten years. Tens of thousands remain in the Assad regime's dungeons, their fates unknown even to their loved ones. Relatives of detainees captured by ISIS are still uncovering the remains of their family members. Local journalists have uncovered networks of prisons belonging to HTS that replicate some of the Assad regime's torture methods. In the past, and with the right incentives, Assad has shown some willingness to compromise on detainee issues. In August 2018, a flurry of death notices issued by the government for detainees who were tortured to death or died in custody was linked to minor relief efforts orchestrated by France and Germany, who at that time were involved in a failed attempt to move the peace process forward . At a minimum, any transitional process must include a process of truth-telling, even if the actual justice that so many have fervently and rightly demanded remains out of reach. Otherwise, unresolved grievances will inevitably lead to renewed fighting.
Finally, a lasting peace deal must complete the drafting of a new charter for Syria. The constitutional committee that has been working on this question since September 2019, overseen by the UN and including government, opposition and civil society delegations, has not achieved any of its goals or made any meaningful strides. Assad will most likely leverage this to increase his hold on power and veil his reign with the veneer of legitimacy — in much the same way that Vladimir Putin performs the rituals and goes through the motions of constitutional legitimacy before anointing himself lifelong leader. Nevertheless, the committee represents a useful peacebuilding exercise and forum for debating the key contested questions facing post—war Syria, such as its national identity, its ostensible system of government, the roles of various communities in its political order, and the parameters of its political institutions.
These are modest proposals that side-step the key issue of Assad's future at the helm of the Syrian state. He has repeatedly refused to entertain the prospect of reform, and sees no reason to do so now that he believes he is victorious militarily. To achieve the goal of remaining in power, over half a million civilians were killed, and half the country's population has been displaced, the vast majority of them at the hands of forces loyal to Syria's strongman. But failing to compromise yet again will guarantee that Syria remains an unpredictable time bomb bound to explode at any moment. The status quo of a starving, traumatized and impoverished population wracked by a collapsed economy and raging pandemic, cut off from the outside world, facing threats and violence from rival militias and warlords and foreign troops is not a recipe for stability.
Thus far, Assad has proven too small-minded and strategically insecure to entertain compromise. As a result, Syria and Syrians remain divided. We may never find true peace until he is gone.