Men search for survivors at a site hit by heavy shelling in the Douma neighborhood of Damascus. © Reuters/Bassam Khabieh

Syria

As the conflict in Syria continues to escalate, HD is one of the very few mediation organisations which has engaged in political dialogue to address the dramatic situation inside the country. Since 2012, HD has been facilitating several initiatives aimed at establishing a conducive environment for resolving the conflict. HD has been reaching out to armed groups, as well as religious, political and civil society leaders who have the authority to represent their respective constituencies in a broader dialogue process, to enable them to develop their own vision for a political solution to the conflict.

Background

The uprising in Syria began in March 2011 with peaceful protests demanding an end to political oppression. This developed into an intense, and ever more complex, armed conflict. The opposition armed groups have become increasingly fragmented and the strength of extremist factions has grown, most conspicuously through the dramatic rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS).

In April 2016, the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria (UNSE), Staffan de Mistura, estimated that more than 400,000 people had been killed since the beginning of the conflict. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, around 13.5 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance inside the country. More than 4.8 million Syrians have fled the country and 6.5 million are internally displaced. The humanitarian situation inside the country is extremely alarming.

By the end of 2015, it seemed there was a glimmer of hope for a political solution to the conflict. Following the Vienna process, on the 18 December 2015 the UN Security Council unanimously adopted UN Security Council Resolution 2254 which endorsed an international bid to end the crisis in Syria. The resolution called for Syrian peace talks on a transitional government to begin in early January 2016 and for a nationwide ceasefire in the war-torn country. The goal was to establish a ’credible, inclusive and non-sectarian” government in Syria within six months, and UN-supervised “free and fair elections’ (UNSCR 2254, http://www.un.org/press/en/2015/sc12171.doc.htm) in which members of the Syrian diaspora would also be able to vote, within 18 months.

Talks were due to reconvene in Geneva at the beginning of January 2016. However, as a result of continuous air strikes carried out by the government of Syria and Russia as well as their refusal to release detainees before the talks as agreed, the beginning of the talks was postponed until early February. In the face of the opposition’s objections to the intensity of the fighting on the ground and the continuous targeting of civilians, the UNSE suspended the talks only two days after they started in February. A US-Russia agreement for a nationwide Cessation of Hostilities (CoH) was subsequently agreed on 28 February 2016 which prepared the way for the reopening of the talks.

During March and early April 2016, the CoH considerably reduced hostilities on the ground. However, there were constant allegations of breaches of the CoH on all sides. While the opposition accused the Syrian Government and pro-government forces of violating the CoH by targeting opposition-held areas, including markets and hospitals, the latter kept justifying these as attempts to target Jabhat al Nusra, which was not included in the CoH.

Talks were reconvened in mid-April but, by the end of the month, the CoH seemed to be on the verge of collapse. A series of governmental and Russian attacks on Aleppo and Idlib had provoked the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), which represents the Syrian opposition in the UN process, to withdraw from the talks which were eventually suspended on the 28 April 2016.

The rounds of talks which have been convened so far have enabled the UNSE to produce a summary of some “commonalities” between the delegations which could form the basis for discussions when the talks restart. In May. the UNSE had urgently appealed to the US and Russia to renew the February CoH agreement and urgent diplomatic activity was underway with the aim of re-establishing a national cessation of hostilities.

Activities

In the last year, HD has worked intensely to foster political dialogue and to contribute to preparing the way for a negotiated solution to the conflict in Syria. Working discreetly and confidentially, HD has established backchannels and relationships with the conflicting parties and with the main international actors in order to contribute to mediation and negotiation efforts.

HD has run several dialogue initiatives to build confidence between actors in the Syrian conflict. It has focused on facilitating dialogue with, and among, armed groups and has provided support for them to develop the skills to enable them to participate constructively in a political dialogue process. HD has also organised several meetings between armed opposition groups and international actors, as well between international actors and representatives of the Autonomous Administration in the areas of north-east Syria, home to a Kurdish majority. These meetings aimed to facilitate discussions with the international community so the opposition and Kurdish representatives could present their political positions in relation to the peace process. In addition, HD has maintained a dialogue with key regional actors, gaining support for its initiatives which aim to de-escalate the conflict wherever possible. HD has maintained a parallel dialogue with the Syrian Government to explore avenues that could lead to dialogue and interaction between the regime and the opposition. In undertaking all of its initiatives, HD has acted independently from the UNSE while maintaining transparency with the UNSE and seeking to complement his work.

Donor support

HD is grateful to the European Union for its generous support for the organisation’s activities since June 2013. HD would like to thank the German, Norwegian and Swiss Ministries of Foreign Affairs for their support for its activities in 2016.