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'Many assumed that the situation would improve'

Matthias von Hein / jsMay 16, 2016

Peace in Syria is once again on the table. Until now, no conference has managed to find a long-term solution. According to Middle East expert Bente Scheller, that's because President Bashar al-Assad is playing for time.

Syrien Krieg - Zerstörung in Hafsarja
Image: Reuters/A. Abdullah

DW: A ceasefire has been in place in Syria since the end of February. How would you assess the situation today?

Bente Scheller: In the first few weeks of the ceasefire, many Syrians were very hopeful. Of course there were violations in the beginning, yet many assumed that the situation would improve. It was the first significant break since the conflict began. But after a while it became ever clearer that there were still going to be bombings and skirmishes. And, unfortunately, if we look at the numbers of dead in those few weeks, we have to conclude that there were not that many fewer than before.

Despite the ceasefire, there was one group that could still be attacked: the "Islamic State" (IS). What do the fundamental military developments of the past few months look like on that front?

Certainly we all witnessed the fact that Palmyra was liberated by the Syrian government. That was all carefully staged. But we still have the issue that the Syrian and Russia air forces are very active and doing a lot of bombing, activity that is directed toward rebel groups and rarely toward the so-called Islamic State - which is why we are only seeing incremental progress in the fight against IS in Syria.

The situation in Aleppo seems especially tense. In the tight quarters of Syria's largest city, Assad's troops are squaring off against a number of opposition militia groups - ranging from moderate to Islamist in their bent.

Aleppo is still a hotly contested area because there is a lot on the line for a number of groups there. On one hand, Aleppo has great symbolic value because it is Syria's largest city. Progress in Aleppo can certainly be sold as a victory. On the other, life is extremely precarious for people there, especially in the opposition-controlled eastern part of the city. There is one very narrow corridor through which food and other important goods can enter that part of the city. If the regime's forces were to cut off that corridor, hundreds of thousands of people would effectively be trapped and the situation would become very difficult. That is exactly why Aleppo has been so heavily damaged by regime and Russian air attacks over the last few weeks. Now the city is supposed to be included in the ceasefire. We can only hope that it will provide some relief to the people there.

There was just another fight between the United States and Russia over the definition of terror groups: Russia made the case for defining Ahrar ash-Sham as a terror organization and putting it on the UN sanctions list. In the Security Council, the US - together with France, the United Kingdom and Ukraine - kept that from happening. But Ahrar ash-Sham is a very militant Salafi group that works closely with the al Qaeda offshoot Nusra Front. How does that work?

For Russia it is important that groups in Syria are defined as terrorists because then they are excluded from ceasefire agreements. That provides an excuse to continue bombing certain parts of the city. Yet we know from previous attacks that it is rarely terrorists or active military groups that are affected. Mainly it is civilians. The discussion about Islamist groups in Aleppo began after the wholly implausible claim that most rebels in the eastern part of the city were Islamists. That is clearly not the case.

The Nusra Front has a very weak presence there. Still, that was enough to motivate Russia to make an issue out of it. I don't think that opposition from the USA and France is due to any fundamentally different assessment of the group. I think it is simply about blocking a Russian political maneuver.

How unified is the opposition beyond the issue of Assad's not being allowed to play a role in Syria's future?

There are a number of differing views. The fact that it was never possible for the opposition, centered in Istanbul, to actually get a foothold in, or even regularly travel to Syria is certainly one of the basic problems. Their access was systematically hindered by the Assad regime, which continued to bombard regions that it had lost control of. That naturally weakens opposition structures and makes it impossible for exiled opposition groups to really gain support among the people and to be able to do anything for those people.

Therefore, we are looking at an extremely splintered opposition, one that is being torn in a number of different international directions - Germany, France, the Arab states of the Persian Gulf and many others could never agree upon what they expected from the opposition. That is why there is no overarching political program - just a very clear vision: Assad must go! That is understandable because of course most of the people that have died over the last few years and are dying today are doing so at the hands of Assad's army and militia groups.

The members of the International Syria Support Group will meet Tuesday in Vienna. What do you think the chances of progress in the peace process - or simply the initiation of a peace process - look like?

We have been able to observe a few attempts - not only the three Geneva rounds, but also a number of others. Moreover, there have also been several smaller conferences. Yet none have gotten far. Above all, that has to do with the fact that the Syrian government has realized that the best strategy is to simply hang on and try to play for time. That is also the Russian strategy. And, prior to each new round of negotiations, it is clearly evident that certain areas are aggressively starved, thus increasing humanitarian pressure.

At that point, humanitarian considerations move to the top of the priority list. But actually the conferences should be dealing with the transition of power that was agreed to in Geneva II. But it is exactly that political aspect, the one that could bring peace to Syria, that is removed from the top of the list because humanitarian issues are consciously pushed to the front. Political issues are rarely addressed. And that is why I am very doubtful that we can expect any progress.