Syrian president Bashar Assad has shown no sign he is willing to step down. AP
After five years of bloodshed, a quarter of a million deaths, and the flight of millions of refugees Syria
has arrived at a critical juncture. A diplomatic framework is in place to end the carnage, a two-week-old partial cease-fire is holding, and peace talks are set to resume in coming days.
“The indicators from a distance are all good,” said Bassam Barabandi, a Washington-based former Syrian diplomat serving as a political adviser to the Syrian opposition. “But it’s a fragile moment, and the way is still long,” he added.
Few think fighting will end altogether, and the efforts could collapse again at any point. Bitter divisions over the future of President Bashar Assad threaten to scuttle any serious negotiations for a political transition in the immediate future. Talk is on the rise that a partition is the best case scenario.
At the heart of the diplomacy is an internationally shared desire to end a war that has unleashed Islamic extremists across the globe, destabilised neighbouring countries and inundated Europe with refugees.
“International opinion is drifting away from the opposition and the idea of political change in Syria,” said Aron Lund, nonresident associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and editor of Syria in Crisis. “Much of the world just wants stability, an end to terror sanctuaries, a stemming of refugee flows.”
The uprising began with a small protest in downtown Damascus on March 14, 2011, followed by larger protests in the southern city of Daraa in response to the torture of high school students who scrawled anti-government graffiti on a school wall.
Coming after a string of Arab Spring uprisings that toppled dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the protests triggered panic in the Syrian power structure. Security forces responded with brute force. Within a few months, the conflict slid into one of the most savage civil wars in recent history.
As the US, Iran, Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Russia poured in weapons and cash to back up opposing sides of the war, the fighting became more brutal. Massacres were committed on a massive scale, and entire blocks in major cities were reduced to rubble.
Assad has been unflinching, maintaining that he is fighting terrorism. The rise of Isis and al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, the Nusra Front, has eclipsed the original core of nationalist activists seeking an end to dictatorship.
For ordinary Syrians there is still a sense of bewilderment at how quickly it all went down, and a feeling of immense, irreversible loss.
“I never imagined the regime would last until 2016,” said Amer Matar, a Syrian journalist who was among opposition activists in early protests. He was detained twice and tortured before fleeing to Turkey and then to Germany, where he has been living for nearly three years. His brother, Mohammad Noor, disappeared more than a year ago. “Syria will never be the same. I don’t think it will be one Syria,” he said.
Former US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, said he, like many other seasoned diplomats, underestimated the ability of the Syrian Government to survive so long, not imagining that Iran, Hezbollah and Russia would intervene so heavily on Assad’s behalf.
The US and Russia last month engineered a partial ceasefire from February 27 that excludes Isis and the Nusra Front. Peace talks are to resume tomorrow in Geneva after a previous round collapsed because of a government offensive in Aleppo. At the heart of the talks will be such issues as a new constitution and elections, said Staffan de Mistura, the UN’s Syria envoy.
But negotiations could collapse over the issue of Assad’s fate. The opposition says it will not accept any process that doesn’t end with his removal. Assad has shown no sign that he is willing to go – and it’s not clear his international backers are willing to force him out.