Five years after protests began in Syria, the country’s political future remains even more uncertain.
A diffused yet continuously proliferating militarised movement has propelled a humanitarian catastrophe, contributed to the territorial fragmentation of the country, and given rise to a range of players, from strongmen to conflict entrepreneurs, who have a direct stake in the continuity of conflict.
Such realities demand thinking concretely about the overlapping layers of the Syrian conflict and what this means for the possibility of a political resolution to the conflict.
Unfortunately, current efforts towards resolving the conflict fail miserably in doing so insomuch as they have concentrated singularly on striking a political deal between the main regional players as the pretext for solving the crisis.
Notwithstanding Russia’s attempt to bomb a political process into existence, a grand solution to the Syrian crisis remains highly unlikely.
The Russian strategy has involved exerting military pressure on rebel groups inside Syria to degrade their capacity, to create new material realities on the ground that reinforce a particular political vision, and to eliminate, politically and militarily, the zone between the regime and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS).
We should not be under any illusions that any grand bargain prefigured by the Russian intervention would plant the seeds of a sustainable political solution.
All of this has occurred under the political cover of Western states who have gravitated towards the Russian agenda. Yet, while the intervention has disrupted the military stalemate that defined the conflict for years, it has thus far not compelled regional states, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, to immediately cede to Russian designs for post-conflict Syria.
This may change as rebel supply routes become more suffocated and potentially collapse but, in the meantime, the change in battlefield dynamics wrought by the Russian intervention did not yield a similar breakthrough in the political process.
Yet, even if it did, what would be the broad contours of a negotiated solution between the regional powers look like? We should not be under any illusions that any grand bargain prefigured by the Russian intervention would plant the seeds of a sustainable political solution.
On the one hand, such a bargain is premised on reducing the conflict to a regional issue to be negotiated between the main players. Such negotiations have concentrated on achieving regional consensus on key issues, such as a political transition, the political composition of a post-conflict government, and the main domestic players who are included or excluded from that political system.
International negotiations have become nothing more than discussions over how to divide the post-conflict Syrian pie. In the process, the fate of Syrians has been unwillingly ceded to regional actors.
On the other hand, consensus on these issues will simply produce a degraded and repackaged conflict, one in which violence, humanitarian crisis, political repression, and forms of insecurity persist throughout the country. This is not a solution, but, rather, a recipe for generational conflict that will persist in different forms, albeit forms more palatable to the regional architects of the solution.
We should not be so naïve as to accept that a grand bargain will reduce and ultimately end violence in Syria.
The only realistic way to chart a more peaceful path forward is to take seriously the micro-cleavages of the Syrian conflict and how any solution can begin to address these [cleavages] through a substantive, generational approach.
The Syrian war economy is perhaps one of the most overlooked and underemphasised drivers of the conflict.
The growing presence of strongmen throughout the country, the central role that armed groups’ commanders play in imposing and breaking humanitarian sieges on villages, and the continuous violence over control of key supply routes, border crossings, checkpoints and highways, suggest a very different conflict from the one presented to us at Geneva peace conferences.
And while most displacement has been driven by the horrors of regularised aerial bombardment and barrel bombing of civilian areas, Syrians have also had to endure the violence of armed groups vying for conflict spoils.
A political process that has no vision whatsoever for how to address the war economy and its contribution to the proliferation of violence betrays current Syrian realities. Similarly, the thousands of militias in Syria are not simple proxies who do the bidding of regional players.
They have their own localised interests and concerns, which likely supersede any material and political support they receive from outside players. Many of the fighters are not necessarily ideologically driven, as evidenced by the constant switching of allegiances between brigades, and after so many years of conflict, different armed groups have worked out how to materially reproduce without external support.
Perhaps most troubling, however, is the absence of any serious discussion on how to address the refugee crisis such as through the implementation of a repatriation plan. These are but a few of the pressing economic, security and political questions that future generations of Syrians will confront.
As we enter the sixth year of the conflict, we are further away from a sustainable solution than at any other point. The micro-cleavages of the conflict are becoming more aggravated by the month, as violence, displacement, the rise of sectarianism, economic hardship, and widespread loss shape everyday Syrian experiences.
Paradoxically, we may be moving closer to a negotiated agreement that will allow violence to continue in different forms but with the blessing of regional states. Alas, such an agreement is made possible by the framing of the conflict as an uprising that descended into civil violence.
This neat, linear story may be convenient, but it is patently false. In the aftermath of the declaration of a ceasefire last month, thousands of Syrians returned to the streets in protest, not only against the regime but also against many of the armed groups that have so violently embedded themselves in their areas.
This is not to romanticise or valorise a protest movement that has indeed been stunted, but to identify and acknowledge the obvious, mainly, that the uprising did not neatly morph into a civil war.
Rather, overlapping patterns of civil violence, non-violent protest and external intervention have conflated to produce the worst humanitarian crisis of the century.
Such a complicated, interrelated problem requires an equally profound solution, one that is simply not on offer today.