Fighting flares amid new Syria peace effort

Moscow wants to engage new US administration to give international legitimacy to Astana talks.

General Mustafa al-Sheikh, head of Syrian opposition delegation

2017/01/22 Issue: 90 Page: 10

The Arab Weekly
Ed Blanche

Beirut - Fighting has flared across Syria, casting a pall over a new drive by Russia, sup­ported by Turkey, to hold together a much-violated ceasefire and hammer out a peace deal between the Damascus regime and disparate rebel forces.

In the run-up to the talks in Astana, capital of Kazakhstan, scheduled for January 23rd, clashes were reported in at least eight of Syria’s 14 provinces.

Still, most of the rebel groups recognised by the Russians, whose armed intervention in September 2015 averted the collapse of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, have signed onto Moscow’s new peace drive. One of the primary aims of the Astana negotiations is to consolidate the fragile December 30th ceasefire declared by Russia and Turkey and pave the way for a comprehensive peace agreement dominated by Moscow.

Russia, with Turkey in tow, has seized the diplomatic initiative in Syria from the United Nations and the United States, as well as the Gulf monarchies, which back re­bel groups and want Assad ousted largely to thwart Iran’s expansion­ist objectives in the region.

Moscow, with Assad’s rule as­sured, is pushing the Astana talks hard because it seems to be seek­ing to extract itself from the Syr­ian quagmire. Russian President Vladimir Putin recently ordered a partial withdrawal of the air force-dominated Russian military pres­ence.

Russia’s willingness to use maxi­mum force to keep Assad in place, as witnessed in all its ruthless de­structive power in the December seizure of the rebels’ last urban stronghold in eastern Aleppo, has made it a major player in a conflict Moscow views as a stepping stone to restoring its Cold War power.

The Astana talks are the fourth major peacemaking initiative aimed at ending the Syrian war that began in 2011 and Putin wants the global kudos and influence that ending a conflict in which an esti­mated 400,000 people have died would bring him.

Many observers fear, however, the Astana talks will fail to make significant headway, given the wide differences between the regime and its opponents, as well as among the outside powers that support the rival forces in Syria — particularly Russia and Iran — and within the disparate rebel forces themselves.

The Islamic State (ISIS) and other jihadist groups deemed by Russia to be terrorists are excluded from the talks, with delegations from Iran and the United States in largely observer roles.

Russia’s recent willingness to talk to Ahrar al-Sham, a powerful Islam­ist group that has played a key role in the war against Assad and which signed on to the ceasefire, suggests that Moscow is prepared to nego­tiate with groups it had formerly shunned. However, Ahrar al-Sham declared on January 17th that it would not participate in the Astana talks because of continued attacks by the regime and ongoing Russian air strikes.

The Russian invitation to the United States to attend indicates that Moscow wants to engage the new US administration of President Donald Trump to boost its efforts in Syria and to give international le­gitimacy to the Astana talks.

“It will be the first contact, al­ready an official one, during which it will be possible to start discuss­ing ways to wage an effective war against terrorism,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

If progress is made at Astana, UN-sponsored negotiations would fol­low in Geneva in February.

But offensive air operations by Russia and Turkey continued una­bated even as the delegations to the peace talks gathered in the Kazakh capital. Damascus, buoyed by the recent advances won by its allies, continued to move against its en­emies and a major offensive is ex­pected against Idlib province near the Turkish border where jihadist forces, led by al-Qaeda-linked Jab­hat Fateh al-Sham, one of the most effective rebel groups, are strong.

The fighting may escalate in the weeks ahead unless Moscow can pull something out of the hat in Astana.

On January 18th, the Russian mil­itary said it had mounted its first air strikes with Turkey against ISIS in the strategic northern city of al- Bab, one of the main battlegrounds in the current phase of escalating combat.

Attacks were also launched against ISIS in the embattled north-eastern city of Deir ez-Zor, capital of Syria’s oil-rich province of the same name.

The jihadists and their allies es­tablished themselves there in 2015 and have been advancing amid fierce fighting against the one-third of the city still held by Assad’s troops.

The jihadists’ operations report­edly have been reinforced by fight­ers from Iraq’s Anbar province and indicate that ISIS still has offen­sive capabilities despite the severe military setbacks it has suffered in recent months in Syria and Iraq, where the Islamic caliphate it de­clared in mid-2014 is steadily col­lapsing.

Ed Blanche has covered Middle East affairs since 1967. He is the Arab Weekly analyses section editor.

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