Syria peace talks are evaporating

Sunday 12/06/2016

The Syria peace talks, never substantial, are evaporating. The chief negotiator for the opposition has quit. The Russians and the Syrian government continue to bombard pretty much whomever they like in dozens of raids every day, though Obama administra­tion officials assure me that the Russians insist on some restraint.
That was not apparent in the recent bombing attack near Idlib’s main hospital. Sieges have not been lifted, prisoners have not been exchanged and most humanitarian supplies are still blocked.
On the main issue in the talks — the formation of a transitional governing body with full executive authority — no progress has been reported, despite a looming deadline of August 1st for beginning the transition.
The Syrian government and the Russians continue to insist that Bashar Assad preside over that body. The opposition rejects that proposition but its deteriorating military situation gives it little leverage in the negotiations. The Americans have been unable to convince the opposition to yield and, even if some moderates do, it is unlikely they would be able to convince the armed groups — not to mention the extremists — to accept a political solution that leaves Assad in place.
The question of Assad is a secondary one for the US administration, which is primarily concerned with the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). Pentagon-equipped, -trained and -advised Syrian Democratic Forces (mainly Kurdish but partly Arab) are making progress in squeezing Raqqa, ISIS’s declared capital but ISIS has responded with attacks farther west aimed at cutting off a main supply route from Turkey to relatively moderate forces in Aleppo and farther north.
If Kurdish forces prove necessary to block this move, Ankara will have apoplexy, as that could give the Kurds control of the last remaining portion of the Syrian-Turkish border that they do not already own. ISIS knows how to drive a wedge between the supposed coalition partners fighting against it.
With the Syrian regime refusing to allow humanitarian convoys into besieged cities, talk has grown of airdropping aid. That is an expensive and ineffective proposition that should be used only in limited and extreme circumstances. It is no substitute for the truckloads required in major population centre nor will it do anything to end the war.
Assad is happy to tie up the international community in interminable discussions of humanitarian access because it helps him avoid the search for a political solution and the inevitable end to his rule it would entail.
Hope for the peace talks is fading. Syria is headed for more war. It is at moments like these that sometimes someone does something fundamental to alter the equation but what that might be and who will act are not at all clear.
Things are going a bit better in Iraq, where forces more-or-less controlled by the Baghdad government have surrounded Falluja, the base from which ISIS has been launching suicide attacks in Baghdad, and are beginning the campaign to liberate it. Kurdish forces have moved towards Mosul, though any effort to liberate what was once Iraq’s second-largest city seems far off.
Sectarian strife increasingly threatens military success in Iraq, with Iranian-backed Shia militias prominent in the battle for Falluja and apparently determined to play a role in its liberation, despite the expressed contrary wishes of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. He remains under political pressure in Baghdad but has been unable to assemble the parliamentary quorum and majority needed to approve a new, more technocratic government and much-needed anti-corruption reforms.