Charles Lister
Charles Lister is a senior fellow and Director of the Countering Terrorism and Extremism Program at the Middle East Institute

Stability in Syria Remains a Long Distant Objective

When the leaders of Russia, Turkey, and Iran convened in Tehran on July 19, they did so amid significant international attention and expectation. While the war in Ukraine may have set the backdrop to the Tehran Summit, one topic of acute focus was Syria but after a day of bilateral and multilateral meetings, the latest gathering of the so-called Astana Group ended with nothing particularly new.

Instead, the world was presented with a re-assertion of Turkey, Russia, and Iran’s years-old, standard talking points. Even on the contentious issue of a possible Turkish incursion into northern Aleppo, publicly-expressed Russian and Iranian opposition was nothing new – and neither has it stopped Turkey before.

Although the Astana Group has undoubtedly proven to be the primary driver responsible for the transformation of Syria’s crisis since 2015, its effectiveness now seems to be dwindling.

In fact, judging by the outcome of the Tehran Summit, the Astana Group nations are now perpetuating a policy of ‘kicking the can down the road’ in precisely the same way that Western nations have been accused of for many years. In favoring, or accepting a status quo, therefore, the international community is most content with a Syria weakened by constant, latent conflicts in which economic decline, corruption, competing models of governance, and a moribund political process represent a de facto – but not official – partition of the country. Though Syrians of all stripes remain opposed to partition, it is precisely the situation their country now faces.

While no government on any side of the crisis will acknowledge this controversial reality, most do so privately. With this mindset now seemingly in play, ‘conflict resolution’ in Syria has been demoted to virtual irrelevancy, while ‘conflict management’ or ‘conflict containment’ is now the approach that defines external policy on Syria. In plain language, this means that conflict – or conflicts – are now an accepted reality in Syria. More than that, latent conflict may even be a preferred reality, provided it does not escalate to a level that would seriously challenge the current status quo.

In the week since the Tehran Summit, Syria has witnessed a series of deadly conflict incidents involving a plethora of different actors in every corner of the country. On July 20, two makeshift kamikaze drones launched by unknown actors were shot down over Russia’s Hmeymim Airbase on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, for the first time in nearly a year. On July 22, at least five Syrian soldiers were killed in a series of heavy Israeli airstrikes targeting Iranian weapons systems stored in the Shia stronghold Damascus suburb of Sayyida Zeinab; one of the most senior commanders in the Syrian Democratic Forces was killed alongside two other SDF commanders in a Turkish drone strike in Qamishli; and seven civilians, including four young children, were killed in several Russian airstrikes outside Jisr al-Shughour in Idlib. And on July 24, two people were killed in a mysterious strike – possibly by a loitering munition – that targeted a ceremony attended by Syrian and Russian forces to inaugurate a replica of the Hagia Sophia in al-Suqaylabiyah in Hama.

Those incidents merely represented the highlights – there were dozens of violent incidents across Syria throughout the same week. This violent instability is far from unusual; in fact, it is normal. Worse still, the current status quo also guarantees a continuous spillover of violence and drivers of violence throughout many of Syria’s neighbors. In the past week, over $150 million of Captagon produced by the Assad regime’s narco-state was seized in the Gulf; an Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps front group known as Saraya Alwiya al-Dam launched loitering munitions at Turkish military positions in northern Iraq; and suspected Turkish artillery strikes hit a tourist hot-spot in northern Iraq, killing multiple civilians. In Lebanon, authorities are escalating pressure on Syrian refugees to return to Syria against their human rights; and Jordan thwarted several drug smuggling attempts linked back to Assad’s regime.

Despite the clear costs of such violence and regional spillover, there is no clear international will to force forward whatever kind of process may be necessary to secure the kind of change and justice necessary to reconcile Syrians and stabilize Syria. The country is therefore all but destined to remain a battleground for internal and external conflict. The United States has no discernible intention to disengage and neither does Russia, despite its struggles in Ukraine. It has often been popular to blame Turkey’s policies in Syria on President Erdogan, but little if anything would change were he to be replaced. And for Iran, Syria remains integral to its revolutionary regional agenda and in recent weeks, Iranian behavior has emerged as increasingly aggressive.

Resolving Syria’s crisis remains a long distant objective and welcoming Assad back to the world will only exacerbate every driver of conflict and instability. Therefore, at this juncture, the international community faces a choice: to sit back and accept this crippling instability and leave it entirely unchecked, or to work to gradually stabilize Syria’s various opposing regions and create a more sustainable status quo. Although it would be in everyone’s collective best interests, there is no visible prospect for a shift towards a stability approach.

Exclusive to Asharq Al-Awsat