Military escalation pushes Syria back to square one
DAMASCUS - Syria is facing an alarming military escalation between government troops and opposition forces on various fronts, but especially in the northern city of Aleppo, threatening the fragile two-month truce and the stumbling peace talks in Geneva.
More than 230 people have been killed and 1,000 injured in recent days in Aleppo as a result of intense government air strikes and opposition shelling that did not spare hospitals and mosques.
The “catastrophic” situation in the city prompted Russian and US officials in Geneva to agree on a “freeze” in fighting along two major fronts in Syria, a move seen as an attempt to avert the collapse of the February 27th truce.
The new truce declared by the Syrian Army unilaterally on April 29th for 24 hours in Damascus and 72 hours in Latakia did not include Aleppo, which had emerged as a main battlefield in the country’s devastating war.
Skipping Aleppo revealed the extent of differences among the main players in the war, including Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Russia and the United States. Each party is betting on the Aleppo battle to achieve the biggest possible gains and impose its own terms, whether on the battlefield or at the Geneva negotiations.
It was clear that the limited truce was not meant to end the bloodshed but rather to give Washington and Moscow time to negotiate a halt of a looming battle over Aleppo and prevent the collapse of the fourth round of peace talks.
US Special Envoy for Syria Michael Ratney said the agreement was a “general recommitment” to that truce, “not a new set of local ceasefires”.
Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy to Syria, urged the United States and Russia to work to save the “barely alive” peace talks and a ceasefire that “hangs by a thread”.
The most recent round of talks, which ended April 27th, was beset by problems. The Riyadh-based High Negotiations Committee (HNC), the main Syrian opposition delegation, walked out, citing the government’s failure to abide by the ceasefire.
De Mistura said he intends to schedule additional talks for May.
Observers said it would be difficult for Moscow and Washington to work together to preserve the Syrian talks and truce, given the direct role that Russia is playing on the battlefield.
“The complicated military situation on the ground and the fighting that resumed in Aleppo, Latakia, Damascus, Deraa and elsewhere reflect the nature of the differences among the players, particularly Washington and Moscow, which for two months now have failed to agree on a joint plan to monitor the truce,” said military analyst Hassan Hassan.
Hassan said both countries “have no interest in a total collapse of the truce and will exert great efforts to prevent that”.
Turki Sakr, Syria’s former ambassador to Iran, linked the failure of the peace negotiations to the shaky truce, which was “not based on correct bases… True it was clear concerning ISIS but not as such regarding al-Nusra Front.”
“There are local, foreign and international parties who do not want the peace negotiations to succeed but rather the conflict to continue,” Sakr said. “Alongside the meetings in Geneva, there were military preparations on the ground by all the parties. The coming three months will be the toughest.”
The tension in US-Saudi relations had affected the Syrian truce, with armed groups affiliated to Riyadh such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam violating the ceasefire in various regions and the HNC pulling out from the Geneva talks.
What probably fuelled the latest round of military escalation were statements made by Syrian Prime Minister Wael Nader al-Halqi on April 10th about a joint Syrian-Russian plan being under preparation to liberate Aleppo, although the claim was denied by the Russian Army.
It has become clear that preventing the collapse of the truce as well as the peace negotiations would require an understanding among the international parties to implement all resolutions adopted at previous talks and put pressure on the Syrian warring factions to avoid a deterioration.
“The upcoming round of the Geneva talks requires US and Russian efforts to pressure all the parties into consolidating the truce and focusing on that the political transition provides for a regime change and not reproducing the same one because otherwise the war won’t stop,” said Jihad Makdissi, a Syrian activist at the talks.