After five years of war and a quarter-million dead, President Bashar Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies now have the upper hand in Syria, and they are seeking to press a growing battlefield advantage rather than negotiate.
In the past week, the United Nations has tried to start peace talks in Geneva, and European leaders met in London to seek ways to halt a refugee influx. But those events looked like sideshows to the action unfolding in northern Syria, where Assad’s forces — backed by pro-Iran fighters and reinforced from the air by Russian planes — are moving closer to recapturing Aleppo and winning the most decisive victory of the war.
Gains by Assad and his allies in the past month have squeezed overland supply lines to Turkey that may represent the last bulwark against defeat for the rebels in northern Syria. Tens of thousands of refugees have already fled toward Turkey, which is hosting German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday to discuss the crisis. To the west, another opposition stronghold in Idlib is also under threat from government forces.
That doesn’t mean the war is over, or likely to end soon. Syria has witnessed sieges that lasted years. Also, Islamic State still holds parts of eastern Syria, and may gain new recruits from rebels losing ground farther west. But the conflict is narrowing toward a contest between Assad and the jihadists: opposition groups labeled as more moderate, and backed by Western powers and their Middle Eastern allies, face being squeezed out.
Assad, who was on the verge of defeat in mid-2015 before Russian President Vladimir Putin stepped in with military support, has wrested back the initiative. His army last week broke a three-year siege of two villages north of Aleppo. The city is almost encircled, apart from a narrow stretch of contested territory, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Meanwhile, Russian jets are pounding Idlib, where the al-Qaida linked Nusra Front is the strongest opposition group, the observatory says.
The U.N. on Wednesday suspended peace talks in Geneva, only two days after they started, as Assad’s offensive sparked threats by the opposition to walk out. The talks were originally envisaged as preparation for a post-Assad Syria, but changing fortunes on the battlefield are easing Western pressure for the leader to leave office.
Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem said Saturday that there would be no cease-fire until government forces re-establish control over the country’s borders with Turkey and Jordan, the state-run news service SANA reported.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry last month called for a “unity” government in Syria, which Assad aides indicate would mean a limited role for some critics. In a recent meeting with opposition leader Riad Hijab, Kerry was reported in Arabic- language media as saying that the Syrian president could seek re-election. The top U.S. diplomat remains highly critical of Russia and Assad in public, saying on Friday that their bombing of civilians breaches U.N. resolutions and “has to stop.”
Meanwhile, though, the U.S. has urged its allies who support armed opposition groups, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, to reduce weapons shipments to pressure the insurgents into peace talks, the Washington Post reported Friday. It cited rebel commanders who said that’s left them vulnerable to the Russian-backed offensive.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, in an interview last week, advocated the opposite policy: more arms for the rebels to level the playing field.
The other source of hope for the rebels is Turkey, whose army has deployed more forces to the border with Syria. Russia said last week that it suspected Turkey of preparing for a cross-border intervention.
With little hope of battlefield reinforcements for the rebels, and the Geneva talks on ice, the key question may be how Russia chooses to play its hand, militarily and diplomatically.
Ilya Arkhipov and Kambiz Foroohar contributed to this report.
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