The Syrian Arab Republic. Its population of over 20 million people, its impressive man-made lake, its stunning landscapes, its vast architectural heritage, its cultural and religious melting pot… and its 180000 km2 of inextricable mess.
Since the civil war began in 2011, Syria has been put in the spotlight of news reporting all around the world. 450 000 have been killed, more than a million people have been forced to flee during one of the biggest refugee crises of all times. Yet, among the gruesome stories of war, last month shed light on a fragile glimpse of hope: the agreement to a temporary ceasefire in Aleppo.
But while it seemed like a necessary break in a series of horrific events, feelings about this ceasefire have nonetheless been mixed. In fact, two main schools have dominated the news reporting since the agreement was reached. On one side, a predominantly American narrative argued that this ceasefire was a positive step for this conflict’s resolution, and that its fragility resulted from Russian aggressive attitudes towards the rebel groups attempting to overthrow an authoritarian government. On the other side, a Russian-lead argument proclaimed that a ceasefire would facilitate the development of terrorist groups in the region, and that the American targeting of the Syrian government was to blame for the instability of this ceasefire.
And both sides are right.
Indeed, the particularity of this conflict may be its unbelievable complexity. Syria has been catalysing different regional, national and international interest, a fighting ground for ideologies, religions and politics. So, to better understand the Syrian civil war and its future perspectives, let us go rewind time and see how it all started.
The Syrian conflict began in March 2011, when the government, lead by the Assad family, members of the Alawite sect and in power since the 1970s, executed kids in prison accused of painting anti-regime graffiti.
Failure to hold the perpetrators accountable for these murders accentuated the tensions between the Syrian people and their long serving government who failed to meet all its promises of economic and social changes. The opposition, the predominantly Sunni Free Syrian Army, gathered deserting soldiers, fighters and protesters all over the country in an attempt to overthrow its authoritarian government and establish a democracy. The Syrian government responded to this threat by ordering the systematic imprisonment or execution of the rebels, leading to hundreds of civilian casualties. But instead of weakening the opposition, it reinforced the Sunni civilians support for the rebels.
So, is it a case of good rebels against a bad dictatorship? Not exactly.
The president of Syria, Bashar-Al-Assad, eager to avoid any foreign intervention, released extremist prisoners and encouraged them to join the rebel army. This extreme faction created internal divisions among the rebels, making their support difficult for nations like the United States, previously attacked by such Islamist extremists. This Islamist faction of the Syrian rebels, supported by extremist soldiers from neighbouring countries, later seceded to form the group now known as ISIS, along with the previously name al-Nusra front, another extremist group named Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham.
To counter Iran’s growing influence in the region, Qatar has provided the rebels with weapons and funds, mostly through Turkey and Lebanon.
In the meantime, the Kurds, located in the North, seized the opportunity of the civil war to claim their long-wanted independence from the Syrian Arab Republic and form their own nation, attempting to push back both ISIS and the Syrian regime from its territory.
To summarize, four forces are fighting each other on the Syrian soil. The Kurds, who want their independence. The rebels, who want to overthrow the government. The regime, who wants to protect itself, and finally ISIS, willing to establish its own political and religious caliphate in the region.
So, is it just a case of everyone wanting to secede but not able to agree on what to secede from? Not exactly either.
Because in addition to national interests, Syria has become the meeting point of supra-national and geopolitical interests. Iran, a predominantly Shia nation supporting the Alawite, has provided the Syrian regime with weapons, soldiers and funds to counter the Sunni rebellion. To counter Iran’s growing influence in the region, Qatar has provided the rebels with weapons and funds, mostly through Turkey and Lebanon. Saudi Arabia has also expressed its support for the rebels.
The use of chemical weapons triggered the US president Barack Obama to set up a CIA program, aiming to train and supply armed rebels in Syria
But while it is fighting ISIS, Turkey is also attempting to push back the Kurds in order to safeguard its territory in the south, which is also the north of Syria where the Kurdish armies are based.
In the meantime, the Syrian regime has raised great concerns within the international community after accusations of war crimes, notably the use of chemical weapons, arose in 2014. Although it claims that its arsenal of sarin gas was dismantled, the Syrian government was still placed under international surveillance and monitoring. The use of chemical weapons triggered the US president Barack Obama to set up a CIA program, aiming to train and supply armed rebels in Syria in order to overthrow the regime. On the other side, Russia has expressed its support for the Assad administration, and has been continuously bombing ISIS and the rebels for a few months.
And that is how a typical Arab Spring protest against an authoritarian government became a tangled mess of international interests. But since so many different nations are fighting each other on the same ground, how did the ceasefire in Aleppo happen?
The United States and Russia met in Geneva and agreed to suspend the hostilities to let humanitarian aid travel through a very strategic road, previously blocked by the constant fighting between the rebels, the regime and ISIS for a week. Moreover, the ceasefire has enabled the United Nations to resume a dialogue between the opposing forces in Aleppo in an attempt to find possible leads for the resolution of the conflict. But the inherent mistrust between the two powers in regards to their ability to maintain the ceasefire rendered it extremely fragile and hard to maintain. Violations of this ceasefire followed very shortly after its establishment, and although the blame for the first violation is not clear, it appears that all belligerent parties hold a certain responsibility.
the ceasefire has enabled the United Nations to resume a dialogue between the opposing forces in Aleppo
So what are the perspectives for Syria? Is the idea of a sustainable ceasefire already doomed? Let’s explore the options.
According to CNN reporter Nima Elbagir, the success of a ceasefire and conflict resolution lies within three main ‘ingredients’: the first factor is trust. All the partaking elements must be ensured that the others will not violate the ceasefire, and it is considerably lacking in this conflict. Another factor implies that areas of control must be clearly defined, and yet the rebel groups and the Syrian regime are still disputing control over strategic parts of the city of Aleppo. Finally, to ensure that all groups are equally able to maintain the ceasefire, each of them needs leverage. In this case, it mainly consists in the lives of millions of Syrian citizens.
So is there any hope for Syria in this conflict? The conflict extends beyond the realm of geopolitics: religious, political, territorial and social interests of many groups and nations are opposing and tearing apart the region. This has allowed extreme groups like ISIS or Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham to develop and prosper. However, it appears that the presence of international forces, although adding other dimensions to an already complicated conflict, can be a positive force in holding the Syrian regime accountable for its war atrocities and organising humanitarian aid in order to support the civilians. Moreover, Russian and the US both holding vetoes at the Security Council, the option of an organised, independent coalition supporting the resolution of this conflict can be considered. This ceasefire, although brief, has therefore provided the international community with a fragile, but existing framework on how to help an unstable country come to an agreement; the beginning of a new hope for Syrian civilians?