The current frameworks for ending the Syrian conflict have proven inadequate thus far. Increasingly, international and regional actors are bypassing the multilateral processes established in Geneva and Astana to advance their own agendas, adversely affecting the return of displaced populations. Though the regime of President Bashar al-Assad seems to have the upper hand, claims that the Syrian conflict is almost over and that refugees will soon be able to go home are premature and unrealistic.

THE LIMITS OF MULTILATERALISM

The Geneva process, sponsored by the United Nations, has outlined a political settlement between the warring parties on the basis of UN Security Council Resolution 2254. The plan lays out benchmarks for such a settlement including the formation of a transitional government that would replace Assad. However, this top-down approach by the international community has failed to engage with the complexities of the conflict on the ground. To many, Geneva is window dressing at best—an attempt to camouflage the international community’s inability to end one of the most devastating conflicts of contemporary times and sanction a regime accused of mass human rights violations against its population.

More critically, the high probability that Assad will remain in power, thanks to Russian and Iranian military assistance, has to some extent neutralized Geneva. A political transition in Syria is no longer being mentioned by the UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura. The idea that a Syrian leader who has reduced his country to rubble would willingly agree to any devolution of power is a pipe dream. The recent resignation of Carla del Ponte from a three-member committee charged by the UN with investigating war crimes in Syria dealt an additional blow to the credibility of UN-led processes. Del Ponte cited inaction by the Security Council to justify her decision, as one member, Russia, has refused to refer the Syrian regime’s crimes to the International Court of Justice,

But where Russia has been active is in the Astana process, which bypasses Geneva, and of which Moscow has been the driving force. The aim is to broker interim solutions between the parties in Syria. The innovation in Astana was to create a forum bringing together two rival regional powers involved in the conflict, Turkey and Iran, as co-sponsors. Its principal achievement has been an agreement to establish four de-escalation zones in different parts of Syria that would bring some stability on the ground.

However, Astana is viewed by many as an external forum for reducing violence, but one that does not pave the way for a durable settlement. It is also a framework effectively allowing participants to bypass internationally agreed norms, including respect for human rights, as required in Geneva. Among the challenges Astana faces is disagreement over the makeup of monitoring forces due to competing interests among Russia, Turkey, and Iran. The process has also been hampered by a lack of confidence-building measures and Washington’s concern with Iran’s growing influence.

Even though partial implementation of the de-escalation zones agreed upon in Astana has indeed reduced the intensity of the fighting, the absence of mechanisms for stabilization and the maintenance of peace has meant a surge in local-level conflicts between armed actors competing for control. Meanwhile, initial agreements for the deployment of soldiers from the three co-sponsoring states have stalled as their interests have diverged.

Bottlenecks and paralysis in both Geneva and Astana have driven a different approach by Russia, the United States, Iran, and Turkey. Separate arrangements are now being negotiated for each area designated as a de-escalation zone under the Astana process, with Russia acting as a broker with those countries holding sway in each specific zone. This bilateral approach creates more room for spoilers to enter the fray, especially with militias active on both sides of the conflict such as the Lebanese Hezbollah or the Iraqi Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigades and Asaib Ahl al-Haq backing the regime and multinational groups fighting against it. Competing interests between the different parties on the ground mean that those not benefitting from local arrangements have an incentive to undermine them.

One example of a locally brokered agreement is the bilateral accord for the creation of a de-escalation zone in southern Syria, commonly known as the Amman agreement, between the United States and Russia, with Jordanian support. Washington had not wanted the accord to take place within the Astana framework, through which Iran would have had a say. Jordan, a host country had an active interest in seeing the deal through in the hope that it would help relieve its refugee burden. Moreover, the agreement was also meant to address Israeli concerns with expanding Iranian and Hezbollah influence in Syria, particularly near the occupied Golan Heights. Israel remains unhappy because the agreement does not mention the need for Iran and Hezbollah to withdraw from Syria.

Meanwhile, two other deals are in the works with Egypt acting as a guarantor in coordination with Saudi Arabia. The first involves northern Homs and the other East Ghouta, both of which have been under siege by government forces. The deals would involve a ceasefire and the freezing of the lines of conflict as well as a resumption of trade with Damascus and the creation of locally-elected governance councils. The northern Homs deal continues to be derailed by disagreements over the release of detainees, and that for East Ghouta by continued government shelling and allegations of chemical weapons attacks.

THE PRICE PAID BY REFUGEES

These multiple side arrangements diminish prospects for a comprehensive approach to a post-conflict Syria. This would be needed to address massive destruction to homes and infrastructure and options for sustaining the immense humanitarian needs of close to 6.7 million internally displaced populations as well as millions of returning refugees. Instead, the arrangements echo the logic of local reconciliation deals implemented by the Syrian regime and Russia over the past two years. Such deals were used to force out opposition groups, civilians, and civic leaders from areas besieged by the government, as well as, purportedly, to evacuate opposition combatants from certain areas as a prelude to returning civilians there.

Critically, these deals have not been conducive to the return of refugees. On the contrary, as the regime regained control over areas, regime-affiliated thugs and warlords gained significant power on the ground, allowing them to impose arbitrary rule. At the same time, the local authorities have allowed some refugees and internally displaced populations to return, while refusing others. Meanwhile, in most places there is no infrastructure in place to make a homecoming possible.

These disjointed arrangements now being implemented to bring some refugees home have, similarly, focused little on their wellbeing. The most recent political deals that included a refugee return, which were carried out in August along Lebanon’s eastern border with Syria, have been aimed at obliging opposition fighters and their families to relocate to areas of Syria that will most probably see fighting in the near future. Rather than resolving the refugee problem, these deals merely moved it to Syria, placing families in the line of fire.

While going outside the Geneva and Astana processes has reduced levels of violence across Syria, it has also placed Syria’s future on a different track. The conflict and solutions to it have become even more localized as a consequence. By immobilizing battle lines, limited arrangements reached outside a multilateral framework allow local actors to bypass internationally accepted norms with respect to the protection of lives and livelihoods. They also point to the emergence of a fragmented de facto governance structure, one that favors the regime and allows it to reassert some control. However, in view of external influences and the scale of the destruction, meaningful sovereignty will remain limited and the prospect for large-scale refugee return to their areas of origin in Syria will be an illusion.