Another Year in Syria

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The conclusion of round two of the Geneva II peace negotiations ended in a stalemate with both sides of the table pointing blame at each other. This means that the Syrian people will continue to be caught in a cross-fire between forces loyal to the Assad regime and Islamic militant factions. The spillover from this conflict will have further reaching consequences for security and stability in the region in the coming months, and unless foreign governments choose to invest meaningful resources and execute a peace-keeping  mission in a timely manner, the Syrian people will continue to suffer.

The failure of Geneva II

The second round of the Geneva II peace talks ended on Saturday with no future meeting date negotiated. In its conclusion, France, Britain and the U.S. placed blame on the Syrian government for the failure of the talks, while Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Muallem, attributed the failure to the United States’ lack of cooperation in creating a climate conducive to peaceful negotiations.

The Geneva Communique, the agreement in which round two of the talks was centered, was issued last year in June as an outline for future negotiations. The document laid the groundwork for the formation of a transitional government, one that would protect the rights and address the grievances of the Syrian people; Secretary Kerry stated that any future Syrian government would have to be free of Bashar al-Assad. Progress, however, was hindered by the Syrian regime’s opposition to the Geneva Communique, and was against any negotiation that would remove al-Assad from power.

This stalemate, seen from the outset of the talks to be an immovable obstacle, proved to be too difficult to overcome. A government that is willing to indiscriminately attack its own people with chemical weapons  is not a government that would want to negotiate. Stubborn in his refusal to relinquish power at the will of its people, it is no surprise that Assad would be equally unwilling to relinquish his power at the behest of foreign governments.

Escalation, Duration, Intensity

The failure of international diplomacy to end the ongoing conflict in Syria means that the future of Syria will be marked with greater casualties and higher degrees of violence. As a student of political violence and civil wars, the similarities with intrastate conflicts of the past are worth noting.

As witnessed during the Algerian civil wars during the 1990s, conflict between rebel groups and government forces is a hotly volatile relationship. In cases where state influence is weak and control of territories is fragmented, rebel factions are poised to exert their influence over the local populations. Tighter control of contested territories through targeted killings and widespread use of extreme violence can allow rebel groups to maintain supremacy in regions where influence from the state is weak. Furthermore, global financial donations from external governments that flow into a conflict will increase the fighting capacity of both forces, allowing for a longer, more drawn out war with an increased amount of civilian casualties. All of these elements can be found in Syrian conflict.

Additionally, jihadist groups throughout the region are able to move freely across Syria’s porous borders, thereby fueling the conflict even further by increasing the amounts of armaments and fighters active in the war. With growing instability in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt, the supply of knowledgable and experienced fighters throughout the Middle East is growing in numbers. For these reasons, the end of the war in Syria is far away and the spillover to neighboring countries will only increase instability in the region.

Spillover

The future risk then becomes an expansion of experienced jihadists spreading throughout the Middle East and North Africa, potentially increasing the number of terrorist attacks in nearby countries. If al-Assad thinks containing the expansion of jihadists in Syria is a difficult task, global leaders will surely think stymying the growth of jihadists in the entire MENA region will be near impossible.

We’ve seen a growing trend of this in the past: mujahideen fighters who left the battlefields of Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion contributed to escalations in conflict in Iraq during the U.S. occupation. Then, fighters experienced from Iraq lent their expertise to groups in Syria fighting the Assad regime. Spillover from the Syrian conflict led to attacks in Lebanon, which were to combat the growing Hizballah threat. Thus, we see a pattern of Islamic fighters returning home from battle, only to reengage years later in a neighboring conflict. This opens the door for al-Qaeda and its regional franchises to establish territory and regain control that it once lost in the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.