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The Syrian quagmire

When Russia began its campaign of airstrikes in Syria in September, Vladimir Putin said that his country would only target “terrorists”, primarily jihadist militants from the Daesh group. Yet activists on the ground tell a different story, claiming that Russian strikes have primarily hit Western-backed rebel groups fighting against President Bashar Al-Assad, as well as Islamist groups other than Daesh.

In the latest round of strikes, residents of the Syrian city of Idlib say that around 70 people have been killed by Russian planes. A marketplace, official buildings, and residential homes were all reportedly hit. Russia has not confirmed whether it carried out strikes in the area. Idlib fell to opposition groups led by jihadists – including Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Al-Nusra – last spring, making it the second provincial centre to fall into rebel hands during the conflict after Raqqa, which was seized by Daesh. Their advances in the area pose a threat to the coastal region nearby, a bastion of support for Al-Assad’s government.

In practice, the Russian programme of airstrikes is primarily aimed at bolstering Assad’s regime, which it has backed throughout the conflict. Yet in the 12 weeks since Russian airstrikes began, it appears only to have increased the bloodshed. It is notoriously difficult to ascertain exact death tolls in this chaotic and protracted conflict, but it has been reported that Moscow’s jets have killed at least 600 Syrian civilians. The attacks on Sunday in Idlib coincided with the release of a report by Human Rights Watch accusing Russia and the Syrian government of using cluster bombs — indiscriminate, scattershot munitions. Since Russian airstrikes began, the destruction of opposition-held areas of Damascus and Hama has intensified to a level not yet seen during the conflict. Moreover, this does not appear to have translated into much meaningful change on the ground. Aid groups say that the Russian attacks have worsened Syria’s humanitarian crisis, hitting hospitals and destroying supply routes for aid. Airstrikes were intended to pave the way for Syrian ground troops to make decisive gains; but these ground forces have not had much success. After nearly five years of war, the army is depleted. Assad’s government has stepped up efforts to conscript young men. The UN says that the surge in fighting since the Russian intervention has displaced an additional quarter of a million people.

Meanwhile, the American-led campaign of airstrikes against Daesh targets has stepped up too, with Britain and France joining the fray. Al-Assad recently accused the US of bombing a Syrian military base. The US rejected the accusation, suggesting that a Russian plane was responsible. The US maintains that it is focusing on destroying Daesh’s income streams by attacking oilfields and other targets.

While these bombing campaigns continue, making little noticeable difference to the carnage in Syria, there may be some progress on the stalled peace process. This week, the UN Security Council unanimously agreed a resolution endorsing an international roadmap for a peace process. This was a rare show of unity, and came after Russia and the US finally agreed on a text. Long before starting their respective air campaigns, the two powers have held radically contrasting views on how to resolve the conflict. The US, along with other western countries, has consistently called for Al-Assad to step down, while Russia backs Al-Assad and his government. The resolution does not touch on the question of Al-Assad’s fate, but it does endorse the timeline set out in Vienna for a ceasefire, talks between the government and opposition groups with a view to establishing a unity government and, eventually, for elections. It calls for drafting a new constitution and for holding elections within 18 months. Major issues still remain but US Secretary of State John Kerry hailed an “unprecedented degree of unity”.

Of course, cynics will note that timelines for talks have been set out before and have got nowhere. The sheer complexity of the conflict makes it difficult to establish the parameters for such talks: who would be present, given that there are around 100 groups fighting on the ground? It is a huge milestone that Russia and the US have agreed on anything at all, but the question of Al-Assad’s future role will remain a major sticking point.

The Syrian conflict has already claimed a quarter of a million lives, and has displaced millions of people. At present, foreign airstrikes appear to only be increasing the death and destruction, without decisively turning the tide in either direction. No side has been able to secure a clear military victory, and international interventions are doing little more than perpetuate this situation.

The UN Security Council resolution appears to be the most serious attempt yet to find a political solution to the conflict. The deepening involvement of international powers in the Syrian conflict has, perhaps, increased their willingness to compromise on previously rigidly-held positions. Those who believe that a transitional agreement of some sort is the only option for lasting peace in Syria must hope that these compromises will continue in the face of inevitable disagreements ahead.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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