It has been five years of catastrophe. Five years of macabre violence in an ongoing conflict that has embroiled hundreds of thousands — through death, displacement and direct intervention.
As the Syrian crisis pushes into its sixth year, the prospect of the war’s end is a newfound possibility — as is the war’s prolonged continuation.
A Syrian government victory in Aleppo last month spurred, for many, the conclusion that the conflict would soon end. A cease-fire — even if tenuous — has been put in place while peace talks are underway.
Yet still, a looming Trump presidency in the United States — as well as the growing pursuit of Saudi Wahhabist interests in the region, which has served to only embolden many of the Western-backed armed rebels — casts the progress of the war in an alternate direction.
Just last month, a frenzy of events kick-stormed the conflict into this realm of unpredictability. The Russian ambassador to Turkey was assassinated, with the gunman shouting, "Don't forget Syria! Don't forget Aleppo!" as he stood over the body of Ambassador Andrei Karlov. Aleppo was purged of its militants for the first time since 2012, resulting in the consolidation of Syrian government rule around the major cities of western Syria and the coast. And top diplomats met in Moscow to work on the plans for the cease-fire and peace deal.
“Things are beginning to move to the bargaining table,” Max Ajl, journalist and editor of Jadaliyya, told teleSUR. “(The Aleppo victory) signaled that the project to shatter Syria has failed.”
Still, Ajl pressed the point that the Syrian opposition and its allies' defeat in Aleppo would only be accepted as temporary by the West and the Gulf states.
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Most significantly, the administration change in the United States from Barack Obama to Donald Trump, would dramatically shift the outcomes of the war in at least one regard: Trump has indicated he may cut U.S. support for rebel groups.
“Trump has hired a senior adviser who is against the U.S. policy of funding mercenaries,” said Ajl.
As Rania Khalek, a journalist who traveled to Aleppo in November 2016 told teleSUR, the heart of the conflict can largely be attributed to the West’s backing of violence by armed extremist groups.
“In the era of demagogues like Donald Trump, it's more crucial than ever that the left be very clear about the roots of jihadist violence,” she explained. “U.S. foreign policy is to blame for jihadist violence because our governments empowered jihadists in the first place and then uses the blowback in our countries to justify more war. If we aren't honest about this, we will end up ceding the conversation to the far right, ensuring that the demagogues get away with blaming Muslims, Arabs and refugees for a problem the West created and continues to aggravate.”
Still, while Trump may terminate U.S. financial support to the rebels, he may just direct his energy elsewhere.
“I think Trump is a bit unpredictable,” said Ajl. “(But he might) redirect energy to Iran. The election campaign saw tons of belligerence towards Iran.”
According to Ajl, within the recent peace settlement, led by Turkey, Russia and Iran, there are talks that one of the conditions will be to “withdraw Iran and Hezbollah from Syrian soil.”
“There are also talks of setting up a Hezbollah in Syria amongst the Shia population,” he added.
The other member nations of the peace talk leadership have decidedly different roles in the conflict.
Russia, in the last year, consolidated itself as a power-broker in the region — after all, it was Russian air assistance that helped the Syrian government to seize the city of Aleppo from armed extremist rebels.
It also played a role in the evacuation deal, which allowed for the retreat of defeated forces and their families from eastern Aleppo, in exchange for the departure of civilians from the northern rebel-held villages of al-Foua and Kefraya, Idlib province, largely controlled by the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham group.
“I think Russia is more reactive than proactive,” Ajl stated, explaining that while it will likely continue to push back at U.S. ambitions in the area, it’s hard to predict its activities in the region.
As for Turkey, to Ajl, it's the most unpredictable state actor involved. But the cease-fire it helped implement in Syria recently indicates its larger sphere of influence in the conflict.
As calls for no-fly zones and other forms of intervention permeate the soundboards of the conflict, much can be attributed to the “information vacuum that's been filled with rebel propaganda,” Khalek explained.
“It's especially stunning to see so many western leftists cheer on armed revolt by right-wing fanatics who kill minorities just because their opponent is a dictator,” she added.
But when asked if a NATO-in-Libya-style imperialist assault could take place in Syria in the coming year, Ajl was quick to reply no.
“I think it could’ve happened under Clinton. But that specific intervention won’t happen under Trump. Russia won’t accept it — Russia has been explicit about it,” he said.
The recent deployment of U.S. artillery along the Russian border, said Ajl, is also worth paying attention to in the coming year, as cliched Cold War-esque probabilities roll out.
Despite the labyrinthine direction the conflict can take this year after a highly tumultuous 2016, its end is closer now than ever before.
“There is a decent possibility for a comprehensive peace deal by the middle of the year,” concluded Ajl.