The search for peace in Syria faces a deep crisis. The battlefield has reached a stalemate, the Constitutional Committee never emerged from its cul-de-sac, and the UN’s ‘step-for-step’ approach suffers from flawed conceptual underpinnings as well as a lukewarm reception. Meanwhile, Syria remains divided into three areas that risk drifting further apart amid deteriorating humanitarian conditions. This reality on the ground should serve as a marker for recalibrating Western policy on Syria beyond the current focus on sanctions, accountability, and humanitarian aid.
Western policy makers – mostly those from the US, European Union and Turkey – must base a much-needed new conflict management strategy on three ‘ground truths’: 1) the conflict is largely frozen and Syria is likely to remain divided into competing areas of control that are supported, or overseen, by external powers for the foreseeable future; 2) questions of national legitimacy and power sharing are not currently solvable and must be temporarily put on the back burner; c) diplomatic efforts to stabilise Syria and prevent partition are likely to be more effective when they focus on restoring practical connectivity between the different areas of control in terms of flows of people, goods and trade/aid/investment, as well as education.
Such a strategy can take shape by operationalising the UN-sanctioned concept of a ‘safe, calm and neutral environment’ (SCNE) via a clear set of principles for engagement, a detailed stakeholder/interest mapping of the various conflict parties, and a focus on pragmatic measures to improve daily conditions. The objective of such a strategy is to enable a durable return to relatively normal life for Syrians still living in the country, and to create linkages between the country’s war-torn parts that can open windows of opportunity in the longer term for a political process reflecting the intention of UNSCR 2254.
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