Peace prospects in Syria look dim

Peace prospects in Syria look dim

Peace prospects in Syria look dim
As the Syrian conflict entered its fourth year this week, government forces, assisted by Hezbollah fighters, were able to retake the rebel city of Yabroud in the Qalamoun mountain range. It was a major victory for the regime of President Bashar Assad and a bitter defeat for opposition forces, which after more than a month of bloody battles, were forced to abandon the strategic town. The fall of Yabroud means that government forces are now in control of the highway between Damascus and Homs and have full access to the coastal plains. It also means that rebels have lost a crucial gateway to Lebanon.
The opposition blamed lack of western support for their latest loss. But while that could be true, it also underlined the effect of divisions raging between various rebel groups. The Free Syrian Army (FSA), Jabhat Al-Nusra and others are still unable to unite their efforts on the ground. The regime has benefitted greatly from internal fighting between radical groups, mainly Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL), and the FSA and Jabhat Al-Nusra in Aleppo, Idlib and northeastern regions.
The battle for Yabroud has raged for well over a month, and yet there was little attention given to it by the West. The Obama administration is still reviewing its options in Syria. The outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis and Russia’s incursion in Crimea last month overshadowed the Syrian crisis. UN-Arab League special mediator Lakhdar Brahimi admitted that chances for holding a third round of negotiations in Geneva were weak. He submitted his report to the UN Security Council last week and told reporters afterward that if Syria goes ahead with holding presidential elections in the coming few months the opposition will not be interested in resuming negotiations.
Brahimi has headed to Iran, Syria’s close ally, in a bid to convince Tehran to put pressure on the Syrian regime. Few believe his efforts will work. Observers think that Assad will win a third seven-year term. Syrian officials were critical of Brahimi’s remarks and insisted that holding the elections was a “sovereign domestic matter.”
It is clear that the Syrian president is determined to continue with the military option. His forces have been making important gains in recent weeks. After Yabroud he may turn his attention to Aleppo, the biggest Syrian city and the most important stronghold for the opposition. The battle for Aleppo may decide the future of the conflict.
He has made good use of his resources and regional political development. International pressure on him has decreased since the eruption of the Ukraine crisis, and a recent dispute between Gulf countries has improved his odds. Turkey’s internal problems, over alleged government corruption, have also boosted his position.
The Syrian crisis has gone through three major junctures since it erupted four years ago. One, it started as a spontaneous and peaceful popular uprising, which was dealt with by force. Two, the uprising was militarized as opponents also resorted to violence. And three, it turned into a regional conflict as foreign fighters joined in, with Hezbollah, Iranian and Iraqi groups siding with the regime, and militants crossing the border to join the opposition.
The only way a political solution can be found is for Washington and Moscow to work together and come up with a plan that satisfies all parties. That remains a tall order. The alternative, it now appears that the war will continue for many weeks and months.
Still it is unlikely that the regime will be able to liberate the entire country. In spite of recent losses, the opposition continues to present a serious challenge. It will be able to drain and weaken government forces in other areas. And it is still possible that some rebel groups will receive modern weapons that will make it harder for the regime to make new advances.
The re-election of Assad will bury current political efforts. It will force the West to reconsider its options. The presence of foreign militants has hurt the cause of the opposition. Assad’s claim that he is fighting terrorism has worked for now.
With fighting raging on in Syria the biggest challenge to its neighbors and to humanitarian agencies is to deal with the refugee problem. So far efforts to create safe corridors for civilians and end the siege of towns and refugee camps had all failed. The human cost will continue to rise. Syria is proving to be a big failure for the international community.
President Assad has defied all odds and survived. His opponents are divided both at the political and military levels. It is unlikely that Russia and the US will find accord on Syria soon. The only sure thing about Syria today is that the war will continue.

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