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Deeply Talks: Syria Outlook 2018

In the first Deeply Talks of 2018, Syria Deeply talks with Faysal Itani of the Atlantic Council about the state of diplomatic negotiations, Syria’s economy and the escalation of violence across the country.

Written by Hashem Osseiran, Alessandria Masi, Kim Bode Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
A Syrian man carries a shovel as he walks past destroyed buildings in the northern Syrian city of Raqa, on January 16, 2018, after a huge military operation led on the ground by Kurdish fighters and in the air by U.S. warplanes defeated jihadists from the Islamic State group but also left the city completely disfigured. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images

BEIRUT – In the three weeks since the start of 2018, fighting has escalated in two de-escalation zones, the United States announced its new strategy in Syria and diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict have been challenged by renewed violence across the country.

Overall, it seems as though the year is not off to a good start.

In the first Deeply Talks of 2018, Syria Deeply took a closer look at some of the crucial issues that will impact the conflict this year, including the state of diplomatic negotiations, de-escalation zones, reconstruction and continued military conflicts.

Faysal Itani, resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East joined our editors Alessandria Masi and Hashem Osseiran to discuss the outlook for 2018.

Here are a few highlights from the conversation.

According to Itani, peace talks sponsored by the United Nations, which are scheduled to resume this month, are unlikely to yield any meaningful political settlement as negotiations move forward.

“I think the future of Geneva is really going to be now about translating the new balance of power on the ground in Syria, which obviously favors the regime and Russia, and getting rebels to accept that [Assad will stay in power],” he said.

The outcome, he warned, is unlikely to be a “meaningful political settlement” with “meaningful political reforms,” where power is genuinely shared between rival parties.

Meanwhile, the Moscow-backed de-escalation zone agreement, which was brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran in the Kazakh capital of Astana last year, is also not likely to coalesce into a permanent peaceful settlement, Itani said.

“I have very little doubt that [de-escalation zones] like Idlib and the [rebel] holdout areas in the Damascus suburbs, and even the south, despite the American investment there, those are all going to, once again, become combat zones and the regime will most likely take them,” he said.

“So this [de-escalation zone agreement] is not a solution to achieving a permanent status of peace between divided areas … It is a temporary way to relieve some suffering obviously, but also to help the regime and its allies manage their war effort.”

Another key issue to look out for in 2018 is the fate of Syria’s Kurdish groups, according to the Atlantic Council fellow. Itani said that the fate of the Kurds and their de-centralization project in Syria depends ultimately on whether the U.S. will continue to support them in Syria.

“If the United States decides not to be part of that equation, then they [the Kurds] would have to fend for themselves and then they have to worry about the regime and about Turkey, about many parties, they have a lot of enemies,” he said. “But as long the United States is there they will be OK,” he added, explaining that the Syrian government is keen on avoiding any form of escalation with Washington.

In terms of the economy, Itani’s forecast was grim. “The macroeconomic picture in Syria is awful,” he said.

The only way to salvage the economy would be through injecting enormous amounts of capital into the country ahead of reconstruction, he said, adding that the U.S. and Europe are not likely to supply significant funds to Damascus, especially in the absence of an internationally supported political transition.

The country’s “enormously corrupt and fractured” political economy, which stifles any serious attempt at economic recovery or renewal, he said, only makes matters worse.

Listen to the whole call here:

Deeply Talks is a regular feature, bringing together our network of readers and expert contributors to examine the latest developments in the Syrian conflict, with a view toward the long term prospects for peace building and stability. To join future Deeply Talks, make sure you are signed up to our newsletter below.

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