At the very moment that the United Nations convened peace talks to try to work out a solution to the bloody civil war in Syria, the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and its Russian and Iranian allies mounted a ferocious offensive to resolve the struggle on their terms. That group is determined to reduce the battle to two sets of forces — the current government in Syria and the most radical, abhorrent opposition. That means wiping out any moderate opposition forces around which the international community could rally to replace Assad. Assad and his backers appear to be succeeding.
For five years, Syria has been convulsed by a civil war that has claimed as many as a quarter of a million lives, and uprooted as many as 11 million people, creating nearly 4 million refugees, a number that is anticipated to swell by several million more in 2016. It has been a bloody battle, with a number of forces battling the Syrian government and each other; external powers each have their own favored faction. It would be nice to say that they are united in desiring the defeat of Assad, but that would overstate their common interests. In many cases, they — or their backers — seek power for themselves instead.
The opposition’s failure to unite makes it easier for Assad and his backers. They, along with the rest of the world, know that the Islamic State militants are the genuine threat to peace and stability in the Middle East. Rather than focus on that threat, however, they have instead targeted moderate opposition forces in hopes of eliminating any internationally acceptable alternative to Assad. Assad is betting that if he defeats the moderate rebel groups, outside powers will either back him or give up the fight. That is why Russian forces have targeted virtually every group but the Islamic State radicals since Moscow entered the conflict in force in September 2015, and turned the tide of the battle.
The U.N. launched peace talks in Geneva last week to try to develop a post-Assad government for Syria. While the original Western position was that Assad had to step down, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry now calls for a “unity” government, meaning that there might be a limited role for Assad. Regardless of the evolving Western position, those talks broke up after only a few days, the result of a fierce Syrian offensive against the city of Aleppo, a rebel stronghold, which forced the opposition to walk out of the talks.
The assault on Aleppo is part of a broader Syrian offensive against rebels in the north of the country, which aims to cut rebel supply lines from Turkey. A similar strike is in motion in the west, where the rebel stronghold of Idlib is under attack. In both cases, Russian air power is proving critical to the government’s advance. In both cases, the rebel groups under attack are moderate. The Syrian foreign minister had said that there would be no ceasefire until the government has regained control over the borders with Turkey and Jordan, the two main routes to resupply the moderate forces.
Significantly, Islamic State forces remain strong in eastern Syria, and do not seem to be the target of government attacks. They are content to let the rest of the opposition bear the brunt of the government’s efforts. Not only will that weaken those other rebel forces, but the Islamic State group hopes that the indifference of the Syrian government forces and its allies to the humanitarian consequences of their actions will force ordinary Syrians to swallow their concerns about the group and accept it as a palatable alternative to Assad rule.
Ironically, the moderate rebels have been weakened by the call of the United States for backers of the opposition to slow arms shipments to force them to the negotiating table. This tactic makes sense in the abstract, but when the government is on the offensive and Islamic State is not attending the talks — it has not been invited because it has been officially designated as a “terrorist group” — it only facilitates Damascus’ strategy to make the conflict a battle among the two extreme ends of the political spectrum.
The simple truth is that Assad will prevail because he and his backers are indifferent to the human consequences of their actions. That, of course, is why a civil war began. The tragedy is that Western governments remain divided, each with a different group to support and a different objective to achieve. For some, continuing struggle is the goal, since it will tie down regional rivals; for others, such as Turkey, it is the weakening of foreign forces (the Kurds) that could influence their own domestic politics. Assad, on the other hand, has a simple goal: political survival.
The only thing the West can agree upon is that the humanitarian consequences of this war must be addressed. As the peace talks began and the offensive intensified, a second international conference convened to deal with the influx of refugees that has been produced. The donors agreed to contribute $10 billion to deal with the problem; that is an impressive display, especially since the original goal of the meeting was to raise $9 billion, and more than double the $4.5 billion donated last year.
Still, the only real solution is an end to the fighting and the creation of a government in Damascus that does not treat its people as cannon fodder. Sadly, that objective remains beyond reach.