Syria 2016: Can things get any worse?

Syria 2016: Can things get any worse?
Comment: A peace process has been agreed, but it is a long way before an end to the violence plaguing Syria, writes James Denselow.
5 min read
11 Jan, 2016
Hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians are at the mercy of an indiscriminate war [AFP]
Next month, we will mark five years of unrelenting, grinding conflict in Syria. What was a relatively under-reported country is now better known as a place of chemical weapon use, famine and massacres.

Syria has become a byword for chaos and complexity, its layered conflicts featuring local, regional and international dimensions in a blood-soaked Rubik's Cube that appears unsolvable. Instead, as people pick up the pieces of their lives away from destroyed homes and lost relatives, some cling to the hope that all conflicts end, eventually, and that the future must be better than a present so desperate and tragic for all those touched by it.

So is there hope for the year ahead or will the grim roll call of statistics - a quarter of a million dead, half the country forced from their homes - simply keep building?

2015 saw a number of significant moments in the conflict. The arrival of Russia as a serious military player into the conflict, the rise and apparent decline of IS - the world's new public enemy number one - and finally a peace process that saw enemies and allies sit around a table in Vienna and decide that the conflict in Syria was far too important to be left to the Syrians.
Vienna's ambitions are high and the potential for events to destabilise them is great

The Vienna process and its timetable of ceasefires, talks and constitutional progression is a sliver of light in the darkness and represents the best chance out of the downward spiral of violence.

Vienna's ambitions are high and the potential for events to destabilise them is great. We've already seen how peace envoy De Mistura's work on local ceasefires has seen IS-linked fighters evacuated from Yarmouk camp in Damascus, but only after the killing by the regime of an opposition leader had put the whole deal in jeopardy.

As the instability of the region has demonstrated time and time again, events, both unexpected and sometimes impossible to control, have the ability to upset all the best laid plans.

The seeming implosion of Saudi-Iranian relations over the New Year is a case in point. Both countries are key players on the Syrian chessboard and that they were able to both be present and sign off on the Vienna process was a moment of great hope.

The rapid escalation of the long standing Cold War between Tehran and Riyadh has of course raised huge questions as to the course ahead in Syria, although De Mistura has reportedly managed to protect the peace process regardless.

De Mistura, the mild mannered (they always are) Italian diplomat has the weight of millions on his shoulders and is a critical actor who must be supported by all those interested in bringing the conflict to an end.

Yet the one man remaining in the spotlight is President Assad himself - whose name is seldom mentioned by Western policy-makers without the word "transition" somewhere nearby. Assad's future and the setting of a process by which it will be addressed will be a very early make-or-break moment once the opposition and the regime sit down at the end of the month.
The view from the Presidential Palace in Damascus has been consistent

Opposition figures have been mentioning a transition of a matter of weeks, while the latest rumour out of Washington is that the US will accept him remaining in nominal power until March 2017.

Meanwhile, the view from the Presidential Palace in Damascus has been consistent around genuine political processes commencing "once the terrorists are defeated" and that "it is for the Syrian people to decide on any future leader".

The temptation may be to somehow kick the can down the road when it comes to the Assad transition, and look to address it in the long grass of the constitution-drafting process - but the crunch will be whether this is accepted by those doing the majority of those fighting and dying in opposition ranks on a daily basis.

IS may become less and less relevant to the Syrian conflict this year, despite its likelihood to continue to dominate the international agenda. While questions about "who comes next" if the group are ever pushed out of Raqqa have not really been addressed, the fact remains that in 2015 the group's territory shrank by 40 percent from its maximum expansion in Iraq, and by 20 percent in Syria.

Among the lesser-known quantities in the year ahead is the future of the Syrian Kurds, in particular relation to Turkey. A possible tipping point in Syria's humanitarian crisis here is linked to a harsh winter with the outbreak of disease and/or famine claiming mass casualties.

Assad's reported build-up of forces near the Golan could also bring Israel more directly into the conflict, which could have all manner of knock-on effects, and high profile assassinations can always change the direction of a conflict.

So while it is foolish to ever try to predict what will happen over the next twelve months, the scale of the challenge ahead is clear.

However to finish on a positive, it's worth remembering that unlike many other global conflicts, Syria has the benefit of a peace process that has been nominally committed to by the key powers with stakes in the conflict.

This is now going to be put to the test; the people of Syria cannot afford for it to fail.

James Denselow is an author and writer on Middle East politics and security issues. He is a former board member of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) and a director of the New Diplomacy Platform. Follow him on Twitter: @jamesdenselow

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.