Five years ago this week, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gave a television address about the largely peaceful protests against his rule. “Let us act as quickly as possible to heal our wounds and restore harmony to our larger family and maintain love as our uniting bond.” But there was a sting in the tail: “Burying sedition is a national, moral, and religious duty.” Government repression of the demonstrators and the radicalization of the opposition transformed a campaign of political resistance into a brutal sectarian war, in which at least 300,000 Syrians have died millions have become refugees, and regional and global powers have pursued the great game of proxy conflict. But with peace talks ongoing in Geneva, and a partial ceasefire in place, is the conclusion of the war finally in sight?
In November 1942, after Allied victories in North Africa during World War II, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill declared: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” Churchill’s phrase is apt as the Syrian conflict potentially transitions into a new era based on a limited peace settlement. But the obstacles to a deal remain significant, and the odds of a return to unrestrained warfare are quite high. When Churchill spoke in 1942, there were still two and a half years of fighting in Europe to go. And the Syrian Civil War may have at least that much longer to run.
For years, foreign countries have manipulated and fueled the fighting in Syria. But now the key to a deal may lie with the great powers. Last year, Assad’s forces were in retreat and Russian President Vladimir Putin was facing the loss of his Syrian ally. In September, Russia deployed aircraft and other assets to Syria, and launched a sustained bombing campaign that stabilized Assad’s battlefield position. The major payoff for Putin was a story. He could spin a narrative in which he saved Assad and then pivoted to the role of peacemaker. By wielding both the sword and the olive branch, Russia would be an indispensable nation—and end the international shunning triggered by the earlier Russian intervention in Ukraine.