Syria rivals seek battlefield gains before Vienna peace talks
DAMASCUS - As eyes turn to Vienna where regional and international stakeholders in the Syrian conflict are set to meet, the military competition between the Syrian regime and the opposition to improve the negotiating positions of their big-power patrons has been intensifying on the ground.
The meeting, the third in less than a month aimed at finding a political solution to the war, will go one once again without any of the Syrian adversaries in attendance.
Russia’s intervention in September by establishing an airbase in Syria from which to mount air strikes against rebel forces — supposedly the Islamic State (ISIS) but mostly against groups backed by the United States and Saudi Arabia — has thrust the war to the negotiating table.
This has brought Iran, a key supporter of Syrian President Bashar Assad, into the talks for the first time, with its arch-rival, Saudi Arabia, an implacable Assad foe.
Syrian military analyst Hassan Hassan attributes “the acceleration in the military struggle to clashes in diplomacy” between regional and international players who have previously met in Vienna.
“The two — war and diplomacy — are going hand in hand, especially after ‘countries hostile to the Syrian people’ announced that they’ve supplied the opposition with modern and sophisticated weapons in rural Hama and Idlib,” he said.
For Hassan, the Russian air strikes which began on September 30th, were decisive in rekindling faltering diplomatic efforts. “Russia’s air force compelled Washington to go to Vienna to discuss a political solution, otherwise the Americans would have continued to resist negotiations,” he said.
In the run-up to the November 14th meeting, which will include China in addition to 19 stakeholders, the battlefield has changed dramatically with rebels recapturing territory in the Hama countryside that had been seized by Assad’s regular army in the first weeks of the Russian air campaign.
A military source played down the regime’s setbacks in the race to control as much ground as possible ahead of the Vienna talks, arguing that the army was advancing on the Kweyris military airport near Aleppo, which he said is the main strategic objective of the Russian operation in Syria.
Jihad Makdissi, an independent Syrian politician based in Dubai, said military operations are ultimately aimed at bolstering negotiating positions. “All parties, without exception, stress that there cannot be a military solution to the Syrian conflict,” said Makdissi, a former Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman who defected in 2012.
“As such, any military escalation should be interpreted as an attempt by the various stakeholders to improve their terms at the negotiating table which everyone is waiting for, be it in Vienna or Geneva.”
Moscow-based Syrian journalist Taha Abdel Wahed pointed to Russia’s announcement that it was about reinforcing its air defence systems to protect its bases in Syria, a move that followed the apparent bombing of a Russian passenger plane over Egypt’s Sinai peninsula on October 31st. The attack was claimed by ISIS as retaliation for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s foray into Syria.
“Moscow is definitely worried about the rebels being supplied with anti-aircraft weapons, because the downing of a Russian war plane will be bad news for Putin and any casualties would trigger an outcry at home for an end to the Syria operation,” Abdel Wahed said.
He stressed that the Russian leadership knows this and did not plan to fight a protracted war in Syria. “Moscow wants to secure military air, naval and missile bases in Syria, in return for beefing up Assad’s position in future negotiations,” he said. “It’s basically betting on achieving resounding military gains, which would be followed by an escalation of diplomacy and a gradual easing of military operations.”
However, renewed US military support for the opposition following the Russian intervention has further complicated matters. “What’s happening on the ground today is a feverish race by antagonists to reinforce the positions of their regional and global patrons at the upcoming talks,” said Abou Hassan al-Ali, a rebel field commander in northern Syria.
“The regime and its Russian and Iranian allies have accelerated the ground battles in a desperate attempt to achieve last-minute gains ahead of Vienna but fortunately we’ve been able to withstand the first strikes.”
As the stakeholders prepared for the talks, there has been little progress on one of the main sticking points, that of the fate of Assad. While Russia and Iran insist that Assad must have a role in any transitional period following a ceasefire, Saudi Arabia is adamant that he must go.
The worst-case scenario would be a large-scale military escalation that might not be matched by political progress in Vienna if the United States and Russia decide to go head-to-head in Syria.