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 becomes more complex, HD continues to adapt its work to the evolving context on the ground. Since 2012, HD has facilitated initiatives aimed at establishing a conducive environment for resolving the conflict, including reaching out to all conflict parties, civil society, and international actors. In 2017, HD is maintaining its established network of contacts to help all parties, find effective ways to de-escalate tensions and settle their differences, including by supporting the ongoing international peace process.

Background

Since the outbreak of fighting in 2012, the conflict and the search for a negotiated outcome have constantly evolved, mostly for the worse in terms of casualties, destruction and displacement.

In 2016, the context in Syria was marked by an unsuccessful new round of peace talks in Geneva and several failed attempts to reinvigorate nationwide ceasefires. A temporary cessation of hostilities agreed in February between the United States (US) and Russia showed what might be possible, but conflict soon resumed. All political initiatives, including those from the UN Special Envoy (UNSE) for Syria, have been rejected by the Syrian Government, and most humanitarian attempts to relieve human suffering have failed.

Towards the end of 2016, close co-operation between Russia, Iran and Turkey, and the recapturing of eastern Aleppo by the Syrian Government and its allied forces, changed the conflict dynamics at the international, regional and national levels. Russian-Iranian-Turkish co-operation produced a nationwide ceasefire (excluding listed terrorist groups) across most of the northern opposition battlefields on 29 December 2016, while less formal arrangements involving Jordan and Damascus also quietened the pace of war in the southern areas.

Several local agreements were also reached between the Syrian Government and some opposition armed groups. These have generally followed significant bombing and the denial of humanitarian aid for trapped populations. The results have been the return of the Government rule to the concerned areas and the surrender of fighters or their evacuation with their civilian relatives to other opposition-held areas. Recent examples of such local agreements include Aleppo in December 2016 and Wadi Barada (the location of water source for most of Greater Damascus) in February 2017. More such agreements seem likely in 2017. It remains to be seen however whether they can contribute to ending the larger conflict and providing the necessary conditions for the rebuilding of Syria with international support, in the absence of a general political settlement.

In recent months, the international coalition forces have also continued to support assaults on the major strongholds of the Islamic State (IS) in both Syria and Iraq, while Turkey has maintained its objection to any role being played by the Syrian Democratic Forces  in the battle to recapture the IS ‘capital’ of Raqqa.

Since 2017, the conflict appears to have entered a new phase with new rounds of international and intra-Syrian meetings being held in Astana and Geneva about the future of Syria.

Activities

HD has been working discreetly with all parties to the conflict. This has included on-site research to gain a better understanding of the conflict dynamics, facilitating dialogue and co-ordination between diverse groups, preparing parties for negotiations, facilitating meetings, as well as maintaining backchannels between Syrian and international actors. HD has been acting independently from all actors, including the UNSE, while seeking to complement the international processes.

Over 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. The organisation has run several dialogue initiatives to build confidence between actors. It has focused on facilitating dialogue with, and among, the armed opposition groups and has provided support for them to develop the necessary skills to enable them to participate constructively in the track 1 peace process. HD has also organised several meetings between armed opposition groups and international actors, as well as between international actors and representatives of the Autonomous Administration in the areas of north-east Syria, home to a Kurdish majority. These meetings sought to facilitate discussions between the international community and the opposition and Kurdish representatives, allowing them to 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 also maintained a parallel dialogue with the Syrian Government to explore avenues that could lead to dialogue and interaction between the Syrian Government and the Syrian opposition.  In 2017, HD will keep working with all parties to seek solutions to the conflict.

Donor support

HD is grateful to the European Union for its support to its activities in Syria since June 2013. HD would also like to thank the German, Norwegian and Swiss Governments for their ongoing support.