The carnage goes on. According to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, more than 55,000 people were killed in 2015, including 2,500 children. Hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees have fled to Europe. The question of their resettlement has sparked divisions within the European Union. Security concerns and fear of extremism have further complicated the issue, especially after the Paris attacks in November 2015.
In Syria, Russia has joined the fight and has started a military air campaign. The air strikes were not coordinated with the western-backed military campaign and were viewed as Russia coming in aid of President Assad rather than to fight the so called Islamic State (IS). Last year also saw the direct involvement of France and Britain in the Syrian conflict. With all these new developments, where are we now?
GLIMMERS OF HOPE
Late last year we witnessed concerted diplomatic and political efforts to end the war in Syria. The most successful were the Vienna talks which took place in October. It was a significant step as all the major stakeholders in the conflict were gathered around the table including Saudi Arabia and Iran, the most powerful regional players in the Syrian crisis. Remarkably, it was also the first time Iran was invited to peace talks on Syria.
Participants agreed to follow all the measures put forward in the 2012 Geneva communiques. These included ensuring a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political transition, and defeating IS, al-Qaeda affiliated groups and other terrorist groups. In addition, the participants agreed to organise formal negotiations between the Syrian government and opposition representatives under UN auspices in January 2016. To help ensure their success, Saudi Arabia held talks between a wide range of political and armed opposition groups in order to unify positions and to choose representatives for the January negotiations with the Syrian government.
These developments have created a sense of relief and optimism echoed around the world, which culminated when, on 18 December 2015, the UN Security Council voted to endorse a peace process in Syria as well as the outlines of a nationwide ceasefire.
CHALLENGES FOR 2016
We have however also seen a series of incidents that risk derailing the peace talks.
A major development is the assassination of one of the top Syrian rebel commanders on 25 December 2015 by an air strike claimed by the Syrian Army. Zahran Alloush was the leader of the Army of Islam, one of the most influential armed groups invited to the opposition talks in Saudi Arabia, and one ready to enter peace talks with the Syrian government. It is expected that this assassination will affect the opposition’s participation and may undermine the peace process.
The downing of a Russian plane by Turkey on 25 November 2015 also damaged the image of cooperation and unity that transpired from the Vienna talks. Roughly a month after the talks, Turkey shot a Russian plane for crossing its air space, killing one of the two Russian pilots. The accident was not taken lightly by Russia who condemned the Turkish action and denied violating the Turkish airspace. Tension between the two countries reached such a level that NATO held an emergency meeting urging for de-escalation.
Finally, just at the start of 2016, a serious rift erupted between the most powerful regional stakeholders in the Syrian crisis, Iran and Saudi Arabia, over the execution of the Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr in Saudi Arabia. The death of the cleric infuriated the Iranian authorities who condemned this act and threatened Saudi Arabia that there would be consequences. Tensions peaked when angry Iranian protesters attacked and ransacked the Saudi embassy in Teheran and its consulate in Mashad. Saudi Arabia accused the authorities in Tehran of breaking international law for failing to protect the embassy. As a result Saudi Arabia announced cutting its diplomatic ties with Iran. Saudi officials however have said that the break in diplomatic relations with Iran would not affect upcoming talks.
The political tension between Turkey and Russia as well as between Saudi Arabia and Iran may well affect the peace talks in January. An international consensus on political transition in Syria and on the need for counter terrorism is essential to end the crisis. The next few weeks will tell how much these disputes will impact the peace talks. And until an agreement can be reached and an enduring peace takes hold, the relentless suffering for the Syrian people goes on.