With the collapse of peace talks last week in Geneva after only a few days of meetings in proximity, the average Syrian has little hope for a quick resolution to the conflict, for a return to his or her home or for a return to normal life.
By now it is clear the United States is unwilling to put its weight behind finding a lasting solution to the crisis. Since the beginning the uprising, U.S. President Barack Obama has said Syrian President Bashar al Assad has lost his legitimacy and must go, but what has happened since? As Obama prepares to leave the White house next year, Assad’s grip on Syria is only strengthening.
U.S. attempts to keep the conflict at arm’s length have given Assad and his backers the time to reverse battlefield losses and to regain vital territory on the ground. The position of the Syrian government on the ground is drastically different from four months ago.
Five years of U.S. defeatist strategy opened the doors for Russia to step in and take control of the war in Syria. Putin took advantage of Obama’s weakness, making an opportunity out of the increasingly isolationist U.S. foreign policy.
Moscow provided vital support to the Syrian government when it was on the brink of collapse. Opposition forces were steadily gaining ground; Jaish al-Fatah (the Army of Conquest) had swept across Idlib and was making progress throughout northern Syria. Russian air power stopped opposition advances in their tracks, turning the tide of the war.
Four months of Russian military intervention, ostensibly aimed at combating “terrorism,” changed the civil war’s momentum entirely. By primarily targeting moderate opposition forces, the Russians have leveled the Jaish al-Fatah coalition. Assad loyalists have taken control of most of Latakia and are now encircling rebel-held Aleppo, cutting the city off from vital supply roads that extend toward the Turkish border. And Assad, largely owing his survival to massive Russian and Iranian support, now finds himself with the upper hand at the negotiating table.
The death of the Geneva talks has been reinforced by two factors: a Russian escalation of violence on the ground and an astonishing silence. A week’s worth of meetings in different rooms in Geneva revealed deep differences between the two sides. There are no signs of concessions to be made by any party.
The delegation from Damascus accused the opposition of lacking unity, arguing they could never agree to negotiations when they don’t know who will be on the other side of the table. On the other hand, the opposition accused the government and Russia of escalating attacks on the ground and intensifying aerial bombardment of Aleppo, Homs and Daraa.
As the airstrikes worsened throughout the week, the opposition’s High Negotiations Committee (HNC) was forced to withdraw. Its main demands – a halt in the bombardment of civilian areas, a lifting of government-imposed sieges of towns and villages across the country and a release of detainees – had not been fulfilled in the slightest.
And as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry begins a last-ditch attempt to save the failing peace process by getting both sides to agree on an immediate ceasefire, analysts and diplomats across the globe have little faith that it will make any difference.
Kerry’s plan will need Russian support to succeed, but Moscow is in no way a neutral in this conflict. Its heavy intervention on behalf of Assad undermines its credibility and neutrality in the search for a sustainable political solution that satisfies both parties.
Russia has also attempted to fragment the opposition even further, by insisting that a second opposition coalition – one accused by the HNC of maintaining close ties to the Syrian government – should attend the talks in Geneva.
The names Russia has nominated for this second opposition coalition, such as Qadri Jamil, leader of the Popular Front for Change and Liberation, Randa Kassis, president of the Movement of the Pluralistic Society, Haytham Manna, chairman of the Syrian Democratic Council, Salih Muslim, co-chairman of the Democratic Union Party, among others, have visions and priorities that greatly differ from those of the HNC.
Additionally, the participation of Salih Muslim’s party provokes Ankara (one of the most prominent backers of the Syrian opposition), which considers the party a “terrorist” entity and the Syrian wing of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Huge obstacles present themselves: the escalation of violence on the ground by the government, Russia and Iranian-backed militias; a tightening of government-imposed sieges; and last week’s displacement of tens of thousands of civilians in the greater Aleppo area.
And while both sides further entrench themselves in their respective positions at the negotiating table, the agony of Syrians, inside Syria and abroad, persists.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.
Top image: A Syrian child tries to protect herself from the cold weather at the Bab al-Salam border gate with Turkey, in Syria, Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016. Thousands of Syrians have rushed toward the Turkish border, fleeing fierce Syrian government offensives and intense Russian airstrikes. (AP Photo/Bunyamin Aygun)