As the Syria peace talks resume next week, President Bashar al-Assad, backed militarily by Iran and Russia, shows no willingness to compromise, much less step aside to allow a transition Western powers claim is the solution to the conflict.
Threatened by rebel advances last year, Assad is now pumped up with confidence after Russian air strikes reversed the tide and enabled his army to recover lost ground from Sunni insurgents as well as the jihadis of Islamic State.
While Syria experts doubt he can recapture the whole country without an unlikely full-scale ground intervention by Russia and Iran, they also doubt President Vladimir Putin will force him out – unless there is a clear path to stability, which could take years.
Instead, Russia’s dramatic military intervention last September — after five years of inconclusive fighting between Assad and fragmented rebel groups mostly from Syria’s Sunni majority — has tilted the balance of power in his favour and given him the upper hand at the talks in Geneva.
The main target of the Russian air force bombardment was mainstream and Islamist forces that launched an offensive last summer. Only recently have Russia and Syrian forces taken the fight to Islamic State, notably by recapturing Palmyra, the Graeco-Roman city the jihadis overran last year.
The Russian campaign, backed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and Shi’ite militia such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah, has for now outmatched the rebels, including the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and units supported by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and the United States.
REBELS LOSE MOMENTUM:
Dealing with those groups rather than Islamic State seemed the main aim of Moscow’s intervention, analysts say.
“The Russian intervention fundamentally reshaped the Syrian conflict,” says Kheder Khaddour from the Carnegie Middle East Center. “The momentum of the rebels does not exist any more.”
Putin, diplomats say, weakened the opposition to coax it into accepting a settlement on Russian and Syrian terms. That does not mean the “transitional authority” sought by the U.S. and its allies, but a government expanded to include elements of the opposition, with Assad at its head for the immediate future.
Russia still wants Assad to lead the transition to the elections, while the opposition and its regional allies, including the United States and Europe, insist he should step down. So far no compromises are in sight.
“We need things to advance in the coming weeks. If the political process is just about putting a few opposition people in nominal cabinet posts then this isn’t going to go very far,” said a European diplomat close to the talks..
“If there isn’t a political transition the civil war will continue and Islamic State will benefit from it,” he said.