Documents to download

In March 2021, Syria marked ten years of civil war. The conflict, which began with protests against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, is likely to result in him remaining in power, according to observers.

The humanitarian and economic costs of the war have been high. The UN estimates that a minimum of 350,000 people have been killed since 2011. Half the population remain displaced from their homes. In 2019, the regime put the costs of reconstruction as US$ 400 billion.

In May 2021, Assad won a fourth term in office in elections considered by the UK to be neither free nor fair. The UK, US and the EU continue to argue for peace negotiations and for the regime to be held accountable for its human rights abuses and non-compliance with chemical weapons conventions.

However, since 2018 there has been rapprochement between Arab states and Assad. This, coupled with support from Iran and Russia, may undermine incentives for the regime to participate in any UN-led negotiations for peace.

This briefing describes the position of Syrian and foreign forces in the country, the growing engagement between several Arab states and Assad, debates on sanctions and how additional pressure may be put on the regime, and the lack of progress with peace talks.  

Assad’s strengthened position

Chatham House estimates that Assad controls around 65 to 70% of Syria. The military conflict has largely stalemated; fighting in 2021 has centred on the south of the country and Islamic State has lost most of its territory.

Kurdish forces control substantial areas in north eastern Syria, where around 900 US troops are also based to support them and combat Islamic State. Armed opposition groups, including the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham group, linked to Al-Qaeda, control areas around Idlib in the north west.

North eastern Syria is considered the most likely area to have high-level conflict soon. Increased Turkish military activity has been reported in the area by the press, leading to suggestions that it may act against Kurdish forces.

Continuing presence of Turkey, Russia, and Iran

Assad remains dependent on the backing of Russia and Iran. Both seek to gain from the reconstruction of Syria, and to ensure they have a reliable ally in the region—either in the form of Assad (Russia) or the local militia forces it has raised and funded (Iran).

Turkey maintains troops in north Syria. It is seeking a settlement which reduces the power of Syria’s Kurdish minority. This is a potential point of contention with the US, which backs the Kurdish-led Syrian democratic forces.  

Ending a “forever war?”: US engagement in Syria

Following the withdrawal of US and coalition troops from Afghanistan in August 2021, Chatham House analysis has suggested US engagement in Syria may also be drawn down.

In October 2021, it was reported that any withdrawal will not take place until Islamic State is defeated. No official statement has been made.

Repairing relations between Arab states and Syria

In the initial years of conflict, many Arab states backed the Syrian opposition. Since 2018, several states have sought to recover relations with Assad.

This has been motivated by several factors, including the likelihood he will remain in power, to reduce the influence of Iran and Turkey, and a desire to participate in the economic gains of reconstruction.

Continued opposition to Assad by the US, UK, and EU

In 2021, the US, UK and the EU reiterated their support for an UN-led peace process for the country. However, some analysts suggest the US may not spend diplomatic capital on opposing regional reconciliation.

Applying pressure through sanctions

Sanctions put in place by the US, UK and EU are likely to continue. The sanctions primarily relate to oil and products that could have military uses and include exemptions for humanitarian aid and medicines.

A 2020 report, published by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, argued that while sanctions were not the “drivers of destruction, they are barriers to the recovery” through hindering access to external funding. The UK Government says it remains committed to the principle of “do no harm” with its Syria sanctions, which it says targets individuals and groups who have profited from the conflict.

Limited prospects for peace

The UN-led Geneva peace process, based on UN Resolution 2254 (2015), seeks to negotiate a new Syrian constitution and arrange for free and fair elections.

These talks have been partly undermined by the Astana Talks, held between Russia, Turkey, and Iran, and potentially also by the growing reengagement between Arab states and Assad. Russian-led talks in Sochi in 2018, however, did result in the formation of a group to negotiate a new constitution under the UN resolution.

The first talks were held in 2019. The most recent, held in October 2021, quickly collapsed.

Documents to download

Related posts