Syria 2018: The Major Issues for the Year Ahead

This year, Syria Deeply will be keeping a close eye on the various wars being waged in Syria and the scale of foreign involvement in each, as well as war crimes and accountability, returns and displacement, and reconstruction and reconciliation across the country.

Written by Alessandria Masi Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Syrian men work to reconstruct a damaged building in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, on January 16, 2018, after a huge military operation against ISIS by Kurdish fighters and U.S. warplanes. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images

BEIRUT – For the better part of the past year, the conventional wisdom has been that the conflict in Syria is winding down. But for many in Syria, the war is still very much ongoing and, in some places, the violence and destruction have actually increased.

Several developments on the ground contributed to the assessment that the war was coming to a close. For one thing, 2017 marked the fall of opposition-held Eastern Aleppo to government forces. The evacuation of rebels from Aleppo to Idlib that followed was the first of many such movements to take place in other areas of Syria over the past year. The battle against the so-called Islamic State has been – to a certain extent – won. What’s more, the Syrian government has made a major push to spur reconstruction, development and financial investment in the country.

These developments did – to varying degrees – change the balance of power on the ground in Syria and usher in a new phase of the conflict. But for all that happened in 2017, many of the same obstacles to peace remain.

This time last year, the Syria Deeply team’s main focus was on the Astana trilateral agreement between Russia, Turkey and Iran to enforce a nationwide cease-fire in Syria. The fourth round of U.N.-sponsored peace talks in Geneva kicked off shortly after.

It’s been nearly 12 months since then. The Geneva talks have made little progress and are now headed into their ninth round. Since the cease-fire agreement in January, the Syrian Network for Human Rights estimates that more than 10,000 civilians have been killed across Syria. While Russia touted its de-escalation zone plan as a result of its success leading the Astana negotiations, it has failed to bring an end to the war, and Moscow is expected to debut a new format for negotiations at the all-Syria congress in Sochi later this month.

Here are some of the crucial issues and conflict hot spots Syria Deeply will focus on in the year ahead, with input from some of our top experts.

Continuing Conflict and Foreign Military Involvement

The conflict in Syria has been more than a civil war for years. The country became a battlefield for regional power plays, the war on terror and various intra-Syrian conflicts. We will continue to monitor these wars within the war, with a close eye on the influence and impact of foreign involvement. In the coming year, the focus is likely to be on the battle between pro-government forces and various opposition groups in Idlib and the Damascus suburbs, the U.S., Russia and Turkey’s positions in relation to tension between the regime and Kurdish forces in the north, and the hostility between Iran-backed forces, Israel and the U.S.

The Expert View
Aron Lund, freelance journalist and analyst specializing in Syria
“On current trends, the loyalist side is winning the Syrian war, though it will be a slow, messy, and probably somewhat inconclusive process.
“It is important to understand that this pattern of loyalist consolidation could suddenly be broken. The Syrian government is far stronger than all of its opponents, but it remains undersupplied and brittle in many ways, and it is deeply dependent on foreign support. Should something dramatic happen in, for example, Iran, Russia or Lebanon – or for that matter in Damascus – the game could change quickly. So the likely trend is that Assad continues to shore up his position, but nothing can be taken for granted.”

Crimes and Accountability

We will continue our coverage of vital and underreported human rights issues such as the public health crisis; using sieges as a weapon of war; and detention and disappearance. However, this year we will have an even bigger focus on accountability for alleged crimes and the organizations exploring innovative avenues for pursuing justice. Through this lens, we hope to monitor and highlight peacebuilding efforts in the country, the future of civil society and the rebuilding of the country’s social fabric.

The Expert View
Faysal Itani, resident senior fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council
“One piece of evidence of [humanitarian concessions] is that the arrangement for cross-border aid was reinforced in the United Nations Security Council. But [issues like] detainees are much more sensitive, because they [detainees] have evidence of mistreatment and abuse … if compiled and organized it can be taken to The Hague if anyone ever decides to take up the cause internationally. This is one [concession] I think the regime would be loath to make. I think this is more difficult and it is seen as more of an issue of regime sovereignty rather than just an issue of aid.”

Returns and Displacement

As the international community pushes for the return of refugees to Syria, we will keep a close eye on the various obstacles, fears and instability factors that are preventing or discouraging refugees from returning. In addition, this year is likely to bring about new waves of displacement within the country, as pro-government forces push ahead with their new offensive in Idlib.

The Expert View
Noah Bonsey, senior analyst on Syria for the International Crisis Group
“There is nowhere else for people to go. The questions [over] Idlib are the most pressing in the conflict. The humanitarian ramifications are tremendous. [The offensive] has already newly displaced a huge amount of people, initially displaced to rebel-held areas in the northwest, and pressure toward the border is likely to increase.”

Reconciliations and De-escalation

The government has retaken a significant amount of territory under the guise of so-called reconciliation agreements. While deals share the same name in different areas, the details and impact on the civilian populations differ vastly from place to place. What’s more, several areas of Syria are under military control under the de-escalation zone agreements. We will look at if (and why) de-escalation zones have worked in some areas and not in others, and explore the various concessions and gains for reconciliation. Both of these issues will provide information about the demographics and possible power-sharing systems in post-conflict Syria.

The Expert View
Aymenn al-Tamimi, research fellow at the Middle East Forum
“Although the [government] essentially obtained victory after reconquering Aleppo city in its entirety, it still vows to retake all of Syria. This intention needs to be taken seriously, especially with regards to the conflict with the armed opposition. Hopes that ‘de-escalation’ will be conducive to bringing about a real political settlement and long-term toleration of formal opposition control of certain areas are mistaken. Whatever truth there might be to the supposed Russian reluctance regarding the military reconquest of particular places is not enough to restrain the government when it is intent on military reconquest and ‘softer landing’ methods have failed.
“The recent retaking of the Beit Jann pocket near the border with Israel is a case in point. The pocket continually rejected ‘reconciliation’ for a variety of reasons (in contrast with neighboring villages that agreed to ‘reconciliation’ at the start of 2017), leading to a government offensive that began at the end of September and lasted till the end of 2017, despite the fact that the pocket was supposed to be included within ‘de-escalation.’”

Development, Reconstruction and Syria’s War Economy

Examining Syria’s war economy is a crucial and often overlooked dimension of the current conflict and the country’s future. As the government focuses on portraying the country as open for business, it will be vital for us to unpack the difference between reconstruction and the many multimillion-dollar real-estate development deals that are likely to benefit only the rich and those with ties to the government. We will explore the different layers emerging in Syria’s real-estate sector and will also explore the political influence of foreign investors – those who have a stake in the conflict and are hoping for a piece of post-conflict Syria, the newcomers – and the rise of war profiteers benefitting from illicit trade and illegal activity.

The Expert View
Osama Kadi, founder and president of the Syrian Economic Task Force
“Syria as a centrally managed state no longer exists. Analyzing the Syrian economy in terms of it being a comprehensive state economy is meaningless because there are four influential military powers on the ground: Iran, Russia, Turkey and the U.S.
“They have control over areas and resources that the Syrian regime does not. The U.S. holds most of Syria’s oil wealth through its occupation of Raqqa and likely expansion to other northeastern cities. Turkey controls an area of about 2,400 sq km [930 square miles] in parts of Aleppo and Idlib under the Euphrates Shield plan. Iran and Russia will likely hold the majority of reconstruction contracts in the rest of Syria (with the approval of the Syrian regime) and will acquire control of most of the public sectors as a way to recover their debts (military expenses from backing the regime).
“Thus, if no deal is reached between Russia and the U.S., which most likely will be the case, then each area of influence will have separate reconstruction and development plans.”

The expert views have been edited for length and clarity.

Hashem Osseiran and Kim Bode contributed to this report.

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