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Peace a distant goal in Syria talks

September 14, 2017

Representatives of the Syrian opposition and President Bashar al-Assad's regime are meeting in Astana for a sixth round of talks. They are hoping to secure a ceasefire, but how far off is a lasting peace agreement?

Syrian Army
Image: picture-alliance/Press Service of the President

During a visit to Damascus this past Tuesday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu congratulated the Syrian military on behalf of the Russian president. Government forces had managed to push through the so-called Islamic State's (IS) defensive line as part of their offensive on Deir el-Zour. Fighters from the terrorist militia took control of the city in eastern Syria three years ago, and it has been in IS hands ever since.

But after reclaiming eastern Aleppo in December of last year, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's army, supported by Russian and Iranian forces as well as Hezbollah, has continued to make territorial gains.

Disagreement about numbers

The Russian military has said that Assad's regime now controls around 85 percent of Syrian territory. But not all observers share this optimism. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights maintains that Assad controls just 48 percent of the country. It estimates that the opposition Syrian Democratic Forces hold 23 percent in northern Syria, while various jihadist groups – mainly IS – hold a further 12 percent.

No matter what the numbers, the Assad regime presents itself as assured of victory. That was at least the tenor of the remarks leading up to Thursday's start of the latest round of Syria talks in the Kazakh capital, Astana. There, Russia, Turkey and Iran are meeting with Syrian government representatives to discuss the country's future.

Syrian Soldiers in Deir el-Zour
Syrian forces have managed to push through IS' defensive line at Deir el-ZourImage: Getty Images/AFP

Possibility for further safe zones

The creation of a safe zone along the border with Jordan is at the forefront of the talks. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov held preliminary talks last weekend on the matter with Jordan's King Abdullah II in Amman. Safe zones have already been established in Idlib, Homs and the outskirts of Damascus. Such areas allow civilians to live in relative security, although sporadic gunfire has broken out at times.

The delegates in Astana intend to affirm the status of the safe zones, which the US has also had a hand in establishing. On the sidelines of July's G20 summit in Hamburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump agreed on the need for de-escalation zones, which have been taking shape ever since.

Battles continue

Despite diplomatic efforts, the conflict in Syria continues on several fronts. Jihadist rebels are fighting more moderate rebel groups, though all of them oppose Assad's forces. And just like in the past, civilians are often caught in the crossfire. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that at least 70 civilians died in clashes this past Tuesday alone, in addition to 40 Syrian Army soldiers.

Such losses aside, the United Nations also now agrees that Assad is on the path to victory. Last week, the UN's Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura said that the Syrian opposition must now accept that it has not won the war.

"If they were planning to win the war, facts are proving that it is not the case. So now it's time to win the peace," he told reporters, while cautioning that "victory can only be if there is a long-term political solution."

Syria peace talks in Astana | Staffan de Mistura & Alexander Lavrentiev
UN Syria Envoy de Mistura has acknowledged the impending victory of Assad's Russian-backed forcesImage: Getty Images/AFP

Military victory, but no peace

Members of Syria's more moderate opposition groups reacted particularly angrily to de Mistura's remarks, but experts on the region say the UN envoy is most likely right.

"Assad will stay in power for a long time," Thomas Pierret from the University of Edinburgh told news agency AFP. However, he added that Assad is still far off from a complete military victory. "There's a strong probability that there will be ongoing, endemic armed insurrections," Pierret said. In his view, that will make Syria into a weak state, led by an unstable, potentially threatened government. "[The rebels] will not threaten the central state directly, but they will be structurally threatening for a regime with other major weaknesses."

That regime will have to govern and reconstruct a country in which a quarter of all buildings have been destroyed, and which has only half of the medical and educational institutions it once had.

The talks in Astana may help move the country closer to a ceasefire, but Syria is still a long way from lasting peace.

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East