On Monday the peace conference on the future of Syria opens in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. The hosts, Russia and Turkey, will attempt to find a framework to end the brutal Syrian civil war that has already cost an estimated 500,000 lives and turned some 13 million Syrians into refugees.
Can they succeed? Will the killings and bombings come to an end, or will the extremists still fighting the Assad government, especially Islamic State (Isis) and the offshoots of al-Qaeda, be driven underground and begin a campaign of suicide bombings? In short, can Syria heal its gaping wounds, or will it become another Iraq, where urban terrorism is still taking a deadly daily toll?
Much will depend on what the two hosts – who have set aside fundamental differences on the future of Syria – now think is possible. There is no doubt that Russia holds the upper hand. Thanks to its massive military involvement and its repeated airstrikes, Assad has effectively won the military fight against his enemies. And Turkey, which was desperate to see him toppled and for a while turned a blind eye to the arms and supplies pouring across its southern border to Isis, has now abandoned support for the rebels and has made common cause with Russia in the fight against Isis.
Both countries are now ready to compromise. President Putin, having shown that Russia is once again a power to be reckoned with in the region, needs to prove that Donald Trump can rely on him as a partner with whom he can do business. Just as Russia surprised the world with its muscular intervention in Syria two years ago, so it needs to show that it is ready for a deal with America and the West over the future of Syria, and will put real pressure on Assad and the Iranians to end the killing of opposition supporters and form a government of national unity.
Turkey, battered, angry and shaken by more than a dozen bomb attacks and urban terrorist atrocities in the past year, has fallen out with its Western allies over the aftermath of the coup attempt and President Erdogan’s renewed confrontation with the Kurds. It has found that any initial support for Isis was a terrible mistake. And it has found that continuing confrontation with Russia, trigged by the Turkish shooting down of a Russian jet fighter in November 2015, was taking a heavy political and economic toll, and that Moscow may prove a better economic and political partner that other fellow members of Nato.
So in Astana they may look at all the options to turn the ceasefire into peace. Both will reject the splitting up of Syria into cantons of different factions. Both are committed to stopping Islamist extremists having any say in Syria’s future. And both want to enforce an end to the fighting before it sucks either side into more costly operations in Syria.
The political price of peace will be hard to pay. For Turkey – and the West, which is currently simply sitting on the sidelines – the minimum would be the ousting of Assad. Russian will not agree to this at first, but has made it clear that provided there is a face-saving election and Assad can then “retire”, it doesn’t mind having a different leader, as long as the regime continues much as it is.
But the social and economic price for peace will be even harder. Billions and billions of dollars will be needed to rebuild the devastated infrastructure. And few are willing to provide the money – Russia cannot afford it, the West and the rich Arab Gulf states will want to punish the Assad government and will not pay much, and the peace situation is too unstable for international investors to move in. Syria has lost a generation and has seen its economy set back decades.
The real issue, however, is reconciliation. Syrians have been shocked by the level of brutality that this war has provoked. The tortures, beheadings, rapes, random assassinations and starvation tactics used by the government forces, as well as the brutalities of Isis, have made it difficult for many Syrians to think of anything except revenge. Can villages live together in peace when they have been on opposite sides in the war? How will the ethnic and confessional groups making up the complicated Syrian mosaic be able to trust each other again? And with so much hatred, how can the country pull together to rebuild its houses, schools and hospitals or find work for the returning refugees?
There are two examples peacemakers should look at: Rwanda and Bosnia. In the first, a remarkable programme of public reconciliation tribunals was set up in villages where neighbour slaughtered neighbour during the genocide. On the whole, these have worked, though tensions remain below the surface. But in Bosnia, where terrible atrocities also occurred, there is still an enduring level of hatred between Serbs, Croats and Muslims that the state barely functions as a unitary entity, and violence and revenge are still only just beneath the surface.
Governments cannot enforce reconciliation. Nor can outsiders. But those Syrians willing to risk starting again can be helped by NGOs, by faith groups and by many small actions of help, generosity and friendship that individuals can offer. Some are already working with refugee groups, preparing them a return. Some are trying to counter the thirst for revenge. St Ethelburga’s can have a direct, though limited, role in this. And if so, Syria might possibly be helped overcome the catastrophe that has ruined a nation.
By Michael Binyon