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Syrian war enters 7th year with no clear political solution insight

The Syrian crisis is stepping into its seventh year, with political and military efforts being exerted, but with no clear vision so far on a political vision, rather a more obvious one on the military's.

Political Solution Still Beyond Reach

Throughout the last six years, world powers hosted countless meetings on Syria, whether in Geneva, or the latest in Astana, with each party claiming that a political solution is the only way out of the Syrian intricate impasse.

Still, such meetings failed to draw a concrete roadmap to end the conflict, with each party exchanging blame for the lack of progress.

The Syrian government has always accused political opposition, particularly those in exile whether in Turkey or Saudi Arabia, of being puppets in the hands of regional and international backers to oust President Bashar al-Assad's government and undermine the unity and sovereignty of Syria.

To some extent there is some truth to that, as some exiled opposition groups, mainly the Saudi-backed Higher Negotiation Committee (HNC) are largely linked to agendas of countries supporting them, said Ahmad Ashqar, a journalist and political analyst.

For their part, the opposition also point an accusing finger at the government.

Hasan Abdul-Azim, head of the Damascus-based National Coordination Body (NCB), told Xinhua on Tuesday that Assad's government has for long evaded establishing a transitional governing body, as agreed upon in previous talks.

"The regime has been evading the formation of a transitional governing body over the past years, on the pretext of fighting terrorism," he said.

Forming a transitional governing body was agreed upon during the 2012 Geneva communique which never materialized.

The Syrian government always said that discussing the presidency of President Assad is a redline, and any change in establishing a ruling system in Syria is subject to the wishes of Syrian people through a referendum.

The government also rejected what it called international dictations.

Meanwhile, the government during the recent talks held in Geneva last month clarified that anti-terrorism efforts should be prioritized ahead of talks of transitional periods, whereas the opposition, mainly the HNC, insisted that intra-Syrian talks should prioritize the transition.

This is the thorniest point throughout any talks, according to analysts.

Even President Assad recently clarified that point by saying on Monday that Syria's priority is fighting terrorism, adding that talks about politics at this time are a "luxury."

Speaking to European media outlets, whose content was carried by state news agency SANA, the president said that driving out extremists is a priority and reaching reconciliation in other areas is another priority.

"It's luxurious talking about politics when you could get killed anytime by terrorist attacks," Assad said.

Commenting on the president's remarks, Munther Khaddam, a Syrian opposition figure said that Assad's remarks indicate that "the Syrian government wants a political solution befitting its direction," adding that a political solution will most likely not be reached soon.

Noteworthy, the government regards almost all rebel groups as "terrorists," while the United Nations (UN) and other world powers have only branded two groups as terrorists, namely the Islamic State (IS) group and the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front.

During the talks in Astana earlier this year, the first to gather a governmental delegation with rebel groups representatives in the same venue, the government delegation repeatedly addressed the opposing delegation as the "terrorist groups' delegation."

At first the meeting was hailed as the first of its kind, with analysts suggesting a genuine international will to end the conflict, however real results were far from promising.

The first two rounds as well as the currently round underway, are the result of a Turkish-Russian-Iranian understanding.

The understanding between the three countries was reached ahead of the Astana meeting, resulting in a fragile truce which went into effect late last December, but has been broken with renewed battles in some parts of the country, mainly Damascus's eastern countryside.

As for the rebels, particularly those who were not branded internationally as terrorists, avoiding the Nusra Front was a tough task, as they don't consider Nusra as a terrorist organization, but do regard the IS as one.

During the first round of Astana talks in January 2017, international backers and the Syrian delegation in the talks decided to separate rebel factions from Nusra and IS.

However, during the current round of talks there which started on Monday, the focus of the parties is said to be on the same point of separating rebels from terrorist-designated ones.

Opposition parties were late in arriving, indicating they are not okay with the current ongoing conference.

On Saturday the Syrian opposition called for postponing the negotiations until March 20 due to "ceasefire violations," and in response opposition delegate Osama Abu Zaid tweeted that the opposition will not attend.

The sum of these factors indicates that the path toward a political solution still needs more time.

Osama Danura, a Syrian political analyst, told Xinhua that "the political landscape is not entirely frozen or at a stalemate, but it's moving slowly compared to the lengthy Syrian crisis."

Ongoing Military Activities

The military situation in Syria is still gaining momentum, most notably against the terrorist-designated groups.

The presence of international powers, particularly those involved in the Syrian conflict, has recently become more obvious.

U.S. forces have deployed ground troops under President Donald Trump's new administration, in the largely-controlled Kurdish areas in northern Syria, in preparation for the battle against the IS's de facto capital of Raqqa in northern Syria.

Deployment of U.S. marines to back the Kurdish People Protection Units (YPG) and the allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is part of a plan put forward by the Pentagon as per Trump's request, who said that defeating IS would be a priority.

What's more, Turkish forces have entered Syria to assist the rebels it is backing under a military campaign called the "Euphrates Shield," whose stated goal is to drive IS from northern Syrian areas.

The Turkish-backed campaign successfully dislodged IS from the key city of al-Bab and other areas on the Syrian-Turkish borders.

Yet, the covert reason behind Turkey's campaign is to also keep Kurdish groups away from Turkish borders.

Russian support was crucial to the Syrian army in driving out IS from the eastern countryside of Aleppo province in northern Syria.

It was also critical in driving IS out of the ancient city of Palmyra recently.

All in all the superpowers amass forces to drive out IS from Syria in order to secure their interests in Syria, analysts say.

The U.S.-led anti-terrorist coalition also unleashed a campaign against Nusra Front leaders, killing tens of its commanders in recently, mainly in the northern city of Idlib.

Currently, for the Assad administration, the present situation is much better than before.

The government hails Russia's military intervention as crucial as it has wrestled control over key areas, with assistance from Hezbollah Shiite fighters and other likeminded groups from Iraq and Afghanistan.

President Assad recently said during an interview that the current situation in Syria is better than it was in 2012 and 2013.

Back then, government forces lost key areas to the rebels.

However that's no longer the case, with the army controlling major Syrian cities, mainly Aleppo, which government forces recaptured late last year after driving out the rebels.

Aleppo was crucial toward strengthening the Syrian government's stance, as the opposition deemed it as the "mother of revolutions."

It was their most important Syrian stronghold as Aleppo is the largest Syrian city and the economic capital, and recapturing it was militarily and psychologically significant to the army, and a huge blow to the rebels.

Last January Assad said that Syrian government forces were on their way to victory after recapturing Aleppo.

"We don't consider it (retaking Aleppo from the rebels) as a victory; the victory will be when you get rid of all the terrorists," Assad said.

He said the world will change after "Aleppo's liberation," describing it as a historic moment and a turning point in the Syrian crisis.

Is There Any Hope?

Despite the lack of any tangible progress during the meetings on Syria, analysts in Damascus said hope still exists.

Hmaidi Abdullah, a Syrian political analyst, told Xinhua that the Syrian crisis is currently closer than ever to a political solution, stressing that the military's solution is presently directed against terrorist groups such as IS and Nusra.

He said that the current regional and international military action in Syria, including Aleppo's countryside and the city of Raqqa, is what rendered a political solution to the crisis as the likeliest choice, "As the alternative would be a war between Turkish forces, allied militants, the U.S-backed Kurdish groups, Russian forces and allied Syrian military forces - a war in no one's interest."

He added that the way out of the impasse in the Syrian crisis is through implementing resolution 2254, the ultimate formula for a solution.

The resolution was unanimously adopted on 18 December 2015, calling for a ceasefire and a political solution in Syria.

It is also the foundation for the Astana negotiations convened by Turkey, Russia and Iran in Astana, Kazakhstan.

As for Maher Almounes, a Syrian journalist, he said that the political solution is "the most fortunate option" after a six year crisis, adding that the military's solution in Syria has been "widely exhausted."

"After six years of crisis, the military solution has been depleted and the shift is now toward a political solution," he said.

He explained his remarks by saying that several meetings which have recently taken place in Geneva and Astana indicate that an international will exists to help end the Syrian war as peacefully as possible.

Almounes said that there will be no major wars in Syrian cities, noting that current battles are against rebels pockets in many areas, while major battles against terrorist groups are being fought by superpowers, and Syria's government forces.

Danura, the analyst, said that the Syrian army's ground advance was a positive variable in parallel with an "international shift," regarding the Syrian crisis.

"The ground progress achieved by the Syrian army and the political shifts in parallel are a positive sign, such as the Astana and Geneva talks. Undeniably political progress was not decisive but was apparent and the talks are still in their first stages but they are paving a path for effective negotiations," he said.

He added that "We have also witnessed a change, or aspects of change, in the West's stance toward Syria, particularly America's stance which seems reliable. We also found Russian forces played a role in driving out terrorist groups, preventing Western powers from investing in this phenomenon."

Danura said that optimism levels are higher than previous, yet not to the desired extent.

"There are positive obvious signs but a more decisive role from the international community is needed in terms of battling terrorism and ending the humanitarian crisis in Syria," he said.

Speaking of the humanitarian situation, the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, said in a report marking the sixth anniversary of the Syrian crisis that "while there is some hope for peace, the suffering of millions of Syrians continues unabated. The Syrian War is a collective failure."

The UNHCR said that 13.5 million Syrians need humanitarian aid, and 6.3 million are internally displaced while hundreds of thousands have made perilous sea voyages seeking sanctuary elsewhere and almost 3 million Syrians under 5 have grown up during war time, with 4.9 million, mostly women and children, are refugees in neighboring states.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights placed the death toll of Syria's six-year-old conflict at over 320,000 people, including civilians, rebels, terrorists, and government forces.

[Source: By Hummam Sheikh Ali, Xinhua, Damascus, 14Mar17]

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small logoThis document has been published on 16Mar17 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.