The Syrian conflict is now in its seventh year and involves a wide range of both national and international parties. Crucially, no party is in a position to establish control over the entire country. This has implications for efforts at stabilisation. There is increasing recognition that the Assad regime cannot be displaced and hence must factor in efforts to find a political solution. The recent focus has been on ways to reduce the fighting, paving the way for transition talks.
Two major processes have been underway to find a solution to the Syrian conflict: the ‘Geneva process’ under the auspices of the UN, and the ‘Astana process’ led by Russia, Iran and Turkey. The latter differs from the former in that it involves armed groups and seeks to find a way to end the fighting before then working on a political settlement. Progress was made at the latest round of Astana talks in May, with endorsement of four ceasefire zones in the country which would allow the return of displaced civilians and provision of humanitarian aid to those areas.
However, efforts to reach a political settlement face a number of key challenges: What to do about the Assad regime? Which of the opposition groups to include in transition talks? Can the territorial integrity of Syria be preserved? How to reconcile diverse and sometimes contradictory objectives (notably desire for peace vs. need to hold those responsible for human rights violations to account)? Even if a way can be found to end the fighting, post-conflict stabilisation challenges will include: resettlement of displaced civilians (many will not be able to return to the areas they came from); dealing with the massive and ongoing humanitarian crisis, and reconstruction; and the question of accountability for human rights violations.
Suggested stabilisation options include the formation of a Syrian National Stabilisation Force (SNSF) comprising Syrians to enforce law and order on the ground and allow a negotiation process to take place to reach a political settlement. The EU has been urged to no longer make economic assistance to Syria conditional on regime change, but direct support to non-regime areas and critical sectors and tie recovery assistance to a sustained ceasefire. Others have identified security sector reform as the priority, stressing the need for withdrawal of foreign fighters, followed by a constitutional framework for the transition process, decentralisation, reconstruction and return of refugees, and a comprehensive transitional justice programme – all underlaid by an end to fighting.
Lessons from other conflicts, notably Afghanistan and Iraq, include: a) the need to focus on establishing strong, central government rather than focusing first on democracy and markets – although this risks creating an authoritarian government; b) stabilisation can begin even while peace negotiations are underway; c) realistic goals should be set keeping capacities in view; d) it is important to focus on localism and initiate bottom-up discussions on Syria’s future; e) stabilisation should be given priority over counter-terrorism; f) stabilisation requires integrated civilian leadership across developmental, security and diplomatic functions.
The US Institute for Peace defines stabilisation as ‘ending or preventing the recurrence of violent conflict and creating the conditions for normal economic activity and nonviolent politics’ (Freear, 2016: 1). It lists five ‘end states’ towards which all stabilisation activities should be directed: safe and secure environment; rule of law; stable governance; sustainable economy; and social well-being (ibid). The UK government defines stabilisation as ‘one of the approaches used in situations of violent conflict which is designed to protect and promote legitimate political authority, using a combination of integrated civilian and military actions to reduce violence, re-establish security and prepare for longer-term recovery by building an enabling environment for structural stability’ (UK, 2014: 1).