Syrian regime’s battlefield gains complicate Geneva peace talks push

The Washington Post

A string of Syrian government gains in the Damascus suburbs and mounting pressure on rebels in the north is likely to complicate Western efforts to persuade the opposition to attend planned peace talks, analysts say.

Five towns south of Damascus have fallen into army hands in the past 10 days, according to rebels. In the north, a rebel commander was killed in Aleppo, where the opposition was forced to issue an order this week for all armed groups to mobilize to the front lines.

After more than 2½ years of conflict, the United States, Russia and the United Nations are scrambling to bring the two sides to the negotiating table before the end of the year. But both the political opposition and its armed forces have outlined preconditions for talks.

Analysts say the government gains will make the task of getting the opposition to participate even more difficult, because it will be unlikely to want to negotiate while it is on the back foot militarily.

“Whenever there is any international diplomatic effort, the regime tries to make more military advances,” said Musab Abu Qatada, spokesman for the rebel military council in Damascus. Clashes were continuing Friday on the farms around Hujeira, which on Wednesday became the latest suburb to fall, but Abu Qatada said the string of defeats, in which rebels lost more than 50 fighters, leave them more vulnerable in the besieged suburbs of Moadamiya, to the west, and Eastern Ghouta.

The opposition also alleges that the deal for Syria to hand over its chemical weapons has shifted focus as President Bashar Assad’s government continues to crush rebel-held areas, hemming them in and cutting food supplies.

While the opposition concedes that the government — backed by forces from the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah — is making small but steady gains near the capital and in the central province of Homs, it claims to be repelling advances in the northern city of Aleppo, including in the vicinity of the airport.

As the army pushed forward last week, rebel groups including the powerful Tawhid Brigade and the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra issued an emergency call Monday for all armed formations to join the front lines. In a blow to the rebels’ efforts, Abdul Qader Saleh, the leader of Tawhid, was recovering in a Turkish hospital Friday after being injured in an air raid in Aleppo province a day earlier. Youssef al-Abbas, whom the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights described as Tawhid’s finance chief, was killed, rebels and activists said.

“The government certainly feels as though it has a certain amount of momentum,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center. “I think its main plan is to fortify Damascus and its heartland, while also attracting fighters to the north. It will complicate efforts by international players to engage with some of these groups and persuade them not to veto Geneva. They will be more willing to fight it out.”