As the Syrian war enters its seventh year, it has become one of the worst humanitarian crises and complex geopolitical struggles of our time. Predicting the year ahead for Syria is impossible, particularly as the country’s fate becomes increasingly tied to other nations. But by covering the conflict consistently over the last year, we were able to get a sense of the major issues that will be at the forefront of our coverage in 2017.
Over the last year, we were able to see a shift in the politics of Syria. Since the government seized eastern Aleppo last month, there has been a general acceptance that the antigovernment opposition – in the form in which it came to prominence in 2011 – did not succeed. If the war continues on its current path, the Syrian government will remain in power. But the government’s gains against the opposition are not a sign that the war is over, as the conflict in Syria hasn’t been a civil war for some time. Much remains to be settled, both in the conflict itself and in what the future holds for the war-torn country, as the war enters a new phase.
Over the past year, our editors, reporters and community of experts have explored vital and underreported human rights issues in the ongoing conflict, such as the public health crisis, siege as a weapon of war and arbitrary detainment. New developments are likely to bring more human rights issues to the forefront, among them the fate of hundreds of thousands of people still detained, the majority of whom are in government prisons. In-depth analysis and reporting on these issues will be even more vital in 2017 as international organizations and governments begin to build their cases for potential war crimes and crimes against humanity.
We will be keeping a close eye on the influence of regional players and the shifting alliances of foreign powers and proxies, some of which are pushing more than ever to bring some kind of end to the war. The year kick offs with peace talks in Kazakhstan, brokered by Russia and Turkey, between the Syrian government and parts of the opposition. Though President Bashar al-Assad said he was ready to negotiate “on everything,” the success of the talks hinges on which rebel groups participate. Talks are aimed at expanding on a nationwide cease-fire put into effect late last year, which does not include groups affiliated with the so-called Islamic State group or the former al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.
Taking into account their exclusion from the peace talks and the recent fall of eastern Aleppo, we expect to see some form of realignment of the armed opposition this year. Potential mergers are already being discussed by some of the major rebel groups, such as Ahrar al-Sham and what’s left of the Free Syrian Army, but as foreign powers scramble to throw their support behind groups on the ground, there will likely be even more shifts with other factions like the Kurds or the so-called Islamic State group.
These shifts will impact another issue we will be closely following this year: the fight against ISIS. The U.S. threw its support behind the Kurds to battle ISIS last year, but this may not continue after President-elect Donald Trump enters the White House. Trump’s focus will be on defeating ISIS and potentially could increase investment in those efforts, but as Turkey gets deeper into the war and engages with Russia, future support for Kurdish factions remains unclear.
So far, and for the immediate future, Assad does not need to be as engaged in the fight against ISIS as he has on his quest of recapturing all of “useful Syria.” As the government continues to evacuate opposition-held areas under local truce agreements, a key focus this year will be on forced internal displacement and siege strategies. Long-term solutions to the plight of the millions of people who have been forcibly displaced will need to be on the table this year. What’s more, Assad’s success in his strategy of starve-or-surrender will likely inspire an acceleration of sieges by different players on the ground in their attempts to take control of certain areas.
As the government and other groups push to consolidate territory, the policies, players and financial aspects of reconstruction in Syria will be more important than ever. This will be one of the most important layers in the rebuilding of the country’s economy, ensuring that the government is able to govern. Reconstruction will also serve as a lens for us to investigate demographic shifts in Syria, the future of civil society and the repairing of the country’s social fabric.
Syria is the most documented war in history. In this chaos of information, the important issues are often overshadowed or underreported. This year, we hope to further the conversation on Syria to an even greater extent, and we’d love to know if there are other issues you think we should be paying more attention to, new voices or expert research we should be highlighting or important stories to investigate that we might have missed. If you’re a journalist, expert or researcher working on Syrian issues, we’d love to find ways to feature your work. Please do get in touch by email, follow our reporting, analysis and daily news summaries on Twitter or Facebook and learn more about our favorite work and upcoming stories by signing up to our weekly newsletter.