The recent lack of progress at the eighth intra-Syrian talks in Geneva surprised few as the participants arrived with predetermined outcomes in mind that have hobbled attempts at mediating the conflict between the Government and the Opposition since they began. The central incompatibility in the Syrian War over the future of the Assad regime, with the Opposition wanting a future Syria without it and the Government loathe to see Assad go, has defined the positions of the negotiating teams from the off. The only change has been a subtle one, from an Opposition High Negotiations Committee with a new leadership acknowledging the possibility that Assad would not need to go immediately. Any possibility of establishing a representative Syrian government free of sectarianism for all Syrians remains remote and the series of intra-Syrian talks continues to be a case of repeated mediation. Success, thus far, has been in getting the parties to the talks and agreeing what is being talked about, even if they remain in separate rooms. Nor have the de-escalation zones agreed at Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital, where Turkey, Iran, and Russia pushed through an agreement clearly forced upon the two parties, proved to be successful.
One such ‘de-escalation zone’ is Eastern Ghouta, where a strategy of siege and bombardment of the type employed in Aleppo has continued with little regard for civilians as the Government seeks to regain the territory dominated by a Saudi backed rebel group Jaysh al-Islam. Ghouta was also the location of the infamous chemical attacks in 2013 and has also been subjected to fighting between opposition groups and ISIS. The presence of groups at the fundamentalist end of the spectrum of opposition groups in Syria means that the Government is able to argue that the de-escalation agreements do not apply, as is the also case in Idlib province. Ghouta is of immense interest to the regime for one very important reason that also affects their willingness to negotiate: it is a Damascus district. The ruling parties in civil wars are loathe to negotiate when their cities are under threat and Ghouta has remained under rebel control since the beginning of the civil war and continued to be so as the number of actors involved in the war increased and it became an internationalised conflict. Regaining full control of the capital and its surrounding area remains a key priority for the regime.
There is another reason for the Government to continue its offensives, namely that it is winning and is likely to make gains on the battlefield as it seeks to achieve its central aim of regaining control of Syria. To reach this point it has needed support from Russia and Iran and despite the announcement by President Putin that some Russian forces will be withdrawn it is highly likely that this relates more to forthcoming elections in Russia than the situation in Syria. Both Russia and Iran favour a regime victory over the Opposition, and while this is a long way off the regime clearly has its sights on Eastern Ghouta and Idlib Province. The former has reached a critical point, where civilians are at risk of being starved or bombed out, and despite international calls for a ceasefire and cessation of bombing there is little likelihood of an outside intervention.
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The next blog will be in the New Year.
Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator