The Syrian conflict marked its eleventh anniversary on Tuesday. Putting aside the enormous suffering endured by the Syrian people, what is also striking is that international efforts to achieve a settlement have lost steam over the past few years.
A few weeks ago, I had settled on the theme of this article commemorating the eleventh anniversary of the Syrian crisis. It was: Is Syria destined to be a “frozen conflict". With the crisis in the Ukraine, this question has become even more relevant.
Frozen conflicts have been associated with the space occupied by the former Soviet Union: Transnistria in Moldova, Southern Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan and Donbas in Ukraine. The term is now also applied to other conflicts that been with us for some time: Palestinian-Israeli, Kashmir, the two Koreas, Cyprus and Western Sahara.
While International law has yet to agree on a definition of the term frozen conflicts, to simplify matters for this article “frozen conflicts” can be described as places where fighting took place and has come to an end, yet no overall political solution has been reached.
While the situation in Syria has yet to be described as a full-fledged frozen conflict, it shares two important characteristics that are common among such conflicts, namely: They occur in regions of the countries that are no longer controlled by the central authorities and they are fueled by foreign interventions, whether directly by states or indirectly through proxies in support of the separatists. This condition applies to more than thirty percent of Syrian territory: Idlib, eastern Euphrates, areas under the control of Turkey in northern Syria and al-Tanf.
Syria is a multi-layered conflict: Domestic, regional and international. While Syrians will ultimately determine their future, they require an enabling regional and international environment. Time has proven that the Syrian parties are unable to reach a settlement. The regional environment regrettably has fueled the conflict. It was only when the US and Russia were able to cooperate that breakthroughs in the political process were possible, as happened with the 2014 Geneva Communique (in spite of different interpretations), and UN Security Council resolutions 2118 (2013) on the the removal of Syrian chemical weapons and 2254 ( 2016), which provided a roadmap for political settlement.
There is no common ground among Syrian parties to allow for progress towards a settlement as witnessed by the UN political process. Regional and international actors are not sufficiently prepared to reach a compromise that would allow the Syrian parties to agree among themselves. Moreover, it appears that the military situation has reached an equilibrium that almost all internal, regional and international parties are prepared to live with. The only exception is the Syrian government. But it does possess the means, on its own, to regain the remainder of the territory that it does not control. But Damascus can escalate its military actions and support local resistance in the areas it does not control.
Russia appears content with the present situation, guaranteeing its military presence through the naval and air bases that have proven to be necessary in support of its intervention in Ukraine. Its emphasis on combating terrorism seems to have been relegated to a low priority, in spite of the massive presence of terrorist groups in Idlib.
Turkey appears unable or unwilling to remove the terrorist groups in Idlib and continues to actively support the Syrian opposition in parts of northern Syria, as leverage in any future settlement.
Israel has proven that it can live with the present situation, as long as it is allowed to attack Syrian territory with impunity.
Until Iran is able to attain an arrangement with the US that safeguards its interests - which only becomes possible as a consequence of reviving the JCPOA - and in spite of the fact that the continuation of the present situation is a drain on the limited Iranian resources, the advantages it has acquired in Syria primarily access to Hezbollah as a deterrent to Israel appear to outweigh the cost.
The US, on the other hand, while looking forward to withdrawing its limited military presence - fighting ISIS, to support the Kurds and act as a deterrent to both Iran and Turkey - , can sustain it for the foreseeable future until it is satisfied that Iranian influence is largely curtailed in a way that it no longer is a threat to Israel.
In these circumstances, neither the Kurds, nor the terrorist groups, nor the armed groups supported by Turkey, nor even the government are able on their own to settle the conflict in their favor.
So even before the crisis in the Ukraine, the chances for Syria to be transformed into a frozen conflict existed. A breakthrough was only possible if a US-Russian understanding could take place, or the Arab countries would take a major initiative.
With the present crisis in Ukraine, any possible understanding between Moscow and Washington has become remote.
So, short of a major international effort spearheaded by Arab countries - and there no signs to that effect - to give impetus to a political settlement, it appears that Syria may be destined to be relegated into a frozen conflict.
But we have seen that the “frozen conflict” in the Donbas region has precipitated a major conflict in Ukraine. Just as Russia was unable to accept the status quo in the Ukraine, Damascus will make sure that the situation in Syria does not become a frozen conflict.