The third attempt at a peace conference in Geneva pretty much started off already on a downhill slide. The opposition, championed by the Saudi-founded High Negotiations Committee, was immediately irritated by an unprecedented uptick in Russia airstrikes, the clouds of which hovered mainly over Aleppo and Homs—320 strikes in the first three days of negotiations—and targeted opposition forces, not the Islamic State.
It took less than a week for Geneva III to break down. Contributing factors: the ramped up pro-government offensive, Turkey’s ban on Kurdish participation in talks and America’s unwillingness to push for their involvement, and white-hot relations between Sunnis and Shia generally, as displayed by the still-empty table where Iran and Saudi Arabia used to sit, albeit unhappily, together.
Barbs were thrown every which way. The Saudis accused the Iranians of sponsoring terror and vice versa. Moscow accused Ankara of preparing to invade Syria. Turkey accused Damascus of war crimes. NATO allies accused Russia of fueling and prolonging the war with its tactics. For the HNC’s part, it vowed peace talks could not move forward until 1) Assad and his Russian allies halted their bombardment, 2) humanitarian aid was allowed into 18 areas besieged by the regime, and 3) thousands of prisoners, including women and children, were freed from government prisons.
None of those conditions were met, so it’s a minor miracle—perhaps a major one—that a ceasefire was agreed upon by February’s end and was still holding in early March.
Things did not look so promising only a few weeks earlier when, on February 5, Aleppo, the crown jewel of the conflict, found itself almost completely surrounded—regime forces to the south and north, IS to the east, and Kurds to the west. Tens of thousands of Syrians stacked up on the Turkish border, just as they stacked up on the Jordanian border in January. In the shadow of the siege of Aleppo and the turning of the tide in favor of the regime, Saudi Arabia actually said it was prepared to deploy ground troops to aid the opposition, allegedly to fight IS, but likely also to break Bashar’s back.
On February 11, The Guardian—no slouches—cited new casualty counts for Syria. While the standard numbers as reported by the United Nations had quoted 260,000 killed and a million wounded, The Guardian and its source, the Syrian Center for Policy Research, put the death toll at 470,000 and the number of wounded at 1.9 million. They claimed 11 percent of the Syrian population had been killed or wounded since the start of the conflict, Syrian life expectancy has decreased from 70 to 55, and economic losses are in the vicinity of $255 billion.
As if triggered by the news, the next day in Munich the major powers agreed, somewhat unexpectedly, to a ceasefire. It took some finagling and patience for the truce to come into effect, primarily because Russia and Damascus wanted to snag as much land as they could in and around Aleppo while it was still in the rules, and because the players had to agree who the forces in Syria could still fight—that is, the ceasefire did not apply to IS or al-Nusra Front, or a number of other groups.
Even with talks of a ceasefire hammering away in Europe, IS did their own hammering in Syria, carrying out their deadliest attack of the conflict on February 21 when a series of suicide bombs in Damascus and car bombs in Homs killed nearly 150 and injured hundreds more.
Really, for all the horrors of this war, February 2016 must also be remembered for a few of its brighter moments. Even as efforts at diplomacy faltered in Geneva, aid organizations met in London and pledged $11 billion in assistance, exceeding the requested $9 billion. Of course, the UN and the many players under its umbrella rarely see all the money they are pledged—last year’s $7 billion mark was left barely half-funded—but the ambition of the London gatherings suggests a serious attempt to address refugee and infrastructural problems in Syria (where there are nearly seven million IDPs) and Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan (where more than 4.5 million Syrian refugees reside).
Around the same time, to frustratingly little fanfare, the last of the 230 Assyrian Christians kidnapped a year ago by IS were finally freed after a multimillion dollar ransom was paid.
And then, finally, after five years of lead-foot war, the first major official ceasefire began on Sunday, February 28. Despite claims of violations on both sides, the treaty is holding better than expected. Violence has notably decreased and humanitarian aid groups are delivering aid to areas that have long been difficult to reach beneath the sniper’s scope.
By no means is the conflict is over. The ceasefire could collapse at any moment and, even if it doesn’t, IS is not going anywhere. But for now, and maybe for the first time in a long time in Syria, the horizon bears glimpses of something like light.