Heading into early 2016, the Syrian Civil War is looking desperate. Really desperate. Like more desperate than believing that GOP debates will actually contain rational policy arguments. Syria's military forces have made significant gains since Russia's direct intervention last year, but the conflict is still starting to fall into a stalemate as the U.S.-backed rebel forces continue to hold ground. Nearly all of the world's major powers have been pushing their own agendas in Syria (and the greater Middle East for that matter). Still, there appears to be a small glimmer of hope in the chaos of this dark conflict. Just last week, these major players all announced that a "cessation of hostilities" had finally been established in Syria.
A cessation of hostilities? What does that even mean? Is the war so bad that we can't even agree to call it a ceasefire? Yes, that is exactly it. Its basically like a really weak version of a ceasefire, where all sides agree that they probably won't shoot at each other (no promises though). This was negotiated between the Syrian armed forces (and their allied militias) and the dozens of armed rebel groups on behalf of Russia and the United States respectively. It should be noted that the militant Islamist groups ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front were not included in this cessation. This is for two reasons. One, they are awful people who everyone wants to attack. And two, they wouldn't exactly agree to a foreign concept like "not fighting" anyway. So far, this cessation has allowed significant amounts of humanitarian aid to enter critical areas in Syria. Though this is a great short-term benefit, there are also longer-term implications at stake. This week, we'll take a look at three possible outcomes of this new status quo.
1) Most Likely Outcome: Everyone Starts Attacking Each Other Again
Well that sucks. Not to be too pessimistic about it, but the most likely scenario of this cessation is that everything spirals back into the horrid hellscape that Syria has known for nearly five years. It only takes one of the several dozen rebel groups or a handful of Syrian army soldiers to bring everything crashing down again. One of the more popular theories is that Russian president Putin (whose military intervention in Syria last year saved the regime from defeat) is simply using this ceasefire to resupply and redeploy his forces to other areas of the country where they could be more effective. He has already shown an affinity for this strategy during the numerous ceasefires in the war in Ukraine.
To further complicate things, the cessation doesn't exactly apply to any specific area of the country. It is more of a gentleman's agreement not to directly attack each other. There are certainly cities which are the focus of this cessation (like the starving city of Madaya), but since the agreement applies to specific groups (and not ISIS or Al-Nusra), it is extremely easy to cheat. It is well known by now that Russia has been launching strikes on targets it claims to be ISIS, but are actually Syrian rebel forces (because one man's jihadist is another man's freedom fighter). To be fair, the United States has probably also launched strikes against Syrian military positions under the guise of attacking "terrorist forces." This all means that Syria and its allies can still launch attacks on some targets if they can pretend these targets are terrorist related. Since it only takes one man to Leroy Jenkins the enemy position for everything to fall apart, there are a million ways this "peace" can be ruined. Already, several violations of this cessation have been reported, but somehow the cessation remains in place.
But the continued calm leaves some hope for the next outcome:
2) Somewhat Likely Outcome: Cessation Continues As New Normal
Another possible outcome in Syria is that the cessation starts to morph into a ceasefire that continues indefinitely (or at least until ISIS is defeated). Generally speaking, the longer the cessation continues, the more likely it is to start developing into a tentative status quo for Syria. As each side begins digging in again, Syria could start to look more like the trenches of the First World War (though hopefully without idiotic machine gun cavalry charges). Though not ideal, this would not be a terrible outcome as it gives civilians enough time to bring a sense of normalcy back (or more likely evacuate and flee to Turkey or Europe). There is already some precedent for this type of outcome (Korea and Ukraine for instance), so it is not entirely unrealistic to think a similar outcome could happen again.
In this scenario, we would likely see a continued cessation of hostilities until either the attempted political negotiations break down entirely, or one side sees a clear strategic advantage again (which would probably also trigger a breakdown in negotiations anyway). Even a temporary pause in fighting for several months could dramatically improve the myriad crises related to Syria and its internal problems. Still, it would only be a stop-gap measure until...
3) The Unlikely Scenario: Cessation Becomes Ceasefire And a Political Transition
At last, the elusive best-case scenario in Syria. The United States has been chasing the dragon of political transition for years, but now even Russia and its allies appear to be more open to the idea of a post-Assad Syria. Everyone knows that outright victory by either side is nearly impossible, so a negotiated settlement is the only real solution. Much of the current establishment would have to stay in place in order for what's left of Syria to function as anything resembling a state. But the political transition would certainly see a larger role for Syria's opposition groups to play in Syrian politics, in addition to the obvious removal of Assad from power.
This doesn't mean that everyone responsible for Syria's atrocities would be punished, far from it in fact. Human rights groups certainly won't like it, but some of the worst offenders would have to be granted some level of clemency in order for them to agree to implement a transition plan. It is this fight between vengeance and reconciliation which will likely prove to be one of the hardest parts in negotiating the transition (besides the obvious question of who takes over). The most likely outcome in a post-war Syria would likely be one that sees the power of the federal government in Damascus greatly reduced, with regional autonomy emphasized throughout the country in order to keep the peace.
Regardless of the outcome, the world powers at the negotiating table would do well to remember that the people most affected by these decisions are the Syrians themselves. It is naive to think that regional power struggles and proxy battles won't play heavily into these negotiations (they always do), but any solution which does not directly benefit the Syrian people as a whole will never last. Instead, we risk propping up the same terrible leaders and drawing the same arbitrary boundaries that helped contribute to this mess in the first place. And finally, once a lasting peace is forged (and eventually it will be), the world powers cannot simply pack up and move to the next regional conflict. Syria will need to rebuild its infrastructure and begin to heal its political wounds if it is to have any hope of becoming a stable and prosperous nation once again. If the United States, Russia, and all the other nations vying for a favorable outcome are truly sincere about their commitments, this post-war support will be their real test.