December 23, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Could 2016 be the Last Year of the Syrian Civil War?

• After more than 4 years and 9 months of relentless war, there has been some progress towards creating a negotiating framework to resolve the Syrian War

• For the first time, the UN Security Council passed a resolution calling for a cease-fire and a transition and elections timeline

• The pro- and anti-Assad players and positions have not changed, but there is finally some urgency in pushing towards negotiations early in 2016

• Syrians continue to be slaughtered while all sides push to improve their standing through increased fighting in the lead-up to talks.


As international optimism surges on Syria, the suffering in the country continues apace. Still, as the war enters 2016, there has at least been some progress—however tentative—in a conflict that has seen very little good news. For the first time since the war started in March 2011, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed a resolution calling for a negotiated end to the fighting and an 18-month transition period leading to elections.

No resolution can end a war. Russia has since intensified its bombing campaign, which has killed hundreds of civilians, even after approving the resolution that called for the immediate end to attacks against civilians. Russia skirts the issue by classifying most anyone in northern Syria a terrorist, and therefore a legitimate target—a semantic difference lost on the Syrians. Still, the international community has taken a positive and concrete step. That the step is not the whole journey is no reason to dismiss it. The end has to start somewhere, and the upcoming talks in January—now approved and led by the United Nations—are as positive and needed as they are bound to be frustrating and complicated.

Getting Iran and Russia to agree on an international effort to resolve the war is not insignificant, even if both countries have downplayed the impact of the resolution. Up until now, Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime have insisted that the civil war, despite being a regional catastrophe and global concern, is a purely internal affair to be settled locally. The 18-month transition period is the first UN Security Council resolution that begins with the notion of change, even if does not touch on the status of Assad.

The resolution and the prospect for structured official talks are already under attack by extremist groups such as the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, which will be excluded from the process, even as it remains one of the war's dominant forces. Likewise, every side will dismiss and criticize the diplomatic process depending on how they see their demands—which will ebb and flow from day-to-day—being met. Such sniping and posturing is inevitable, and far preferable to the bloody status quo.

Indeed, it is far better for the resolution to be picked apart by negotiating sides than it is for Syrians to be blown apart by parties hoping to alter the facts on the ground. Sadly, the increase in momentum for structured talks is paralleled by an increase in fighting, particularly via Russian airstrikes against Turkey-backed rebels and villages near the northern border. The rush to kill as many adversaries as one can before a ceasefire begins is nothing new; the history of war is replete with such maneuvers—Yemen being another recent example. There will likely be many failed cease-fires in Syria before one makes a real difference. Regardless of the difficulties, the international community will need to push against diplomatic drift and intentional inertia by parties intent on a quixotic military solution. The reality is that as hard as it will be to push for an end to the civil war in 2016, what comes next—the rebuilding of a shattered, divided nation and society—will make the plodding path for peace seem like a sprint.


The IntelBrief will go on break December 24, 2015 

and return January 4, 2016. 



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