As peace talks remain in a stalemate, Syria’s fragile ceasefire is collapsing.
And the regime and its allies seem ready to pick back up where they left off.
Russia, which supports the regime of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has reportedly been moving artillery units to parts of northern Syria where regime forces have a presence, according to The Wall Street Journal. US officials worry that it signifies an impending return to full-scale fighting.
Iranian forces are also massing near the front lines, according to The Journal. Russia and Iran have both been major backers of the Assad regime throughout Syria’s five-year civil war.
Earlier this year, Russia announced a military drawdown in Syria, but Russian forces and equipment have remained in the country to support the Assad regime.
Meanwhile, in Geneva, peace talks have sputtered as Syrian officials refuse to negotiate a deal with the opposition that would see Assad leave power.
This has long been a major sticking point — the opposition insists that Assad must step down, and many moderate rebels consider the regime, rather than terrorist groups, their main enemy in Syria. Assad has hung onto power as the violence in his country has ground on, and he continues to refuse to cede power to the opposition.
And despite the ceasefire, which applies to the regime and the opposition but not terrorist groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, pro-regime forces attacked a market in the rebel-held town of Maaret al-Nouman in Idlib province.
One opposition negotiator said this week that the ceasefire is over, according to The Journal.
The attack on Maaret al-Nouman, a town with a strong rebel presence where residents have been protesting to repel Al Qaeda influence, serves as another example of Assad’s aims in Syria.
In an email to Business Insider, Abu Faisal, a Syrian aid worker who goes by a pseudonym and has been working with locals in Maaret al Nouman, explained the situation in Idlib:
It’s also a clear sign by the regime that they bombed Maaret Al Nouman and nearby Kafranbel (some 10 died there as well on the same day) on purpose, or singled them out specifically. Both towns are what you could consider the most ‘secular’ and pro-[Free Syrian Army], anti-Nusra towns in all of Idlib. Assad hit them on purpose since protests against Nusra (which have not stopped for 39 straight days) do not fit the story he’s trying to tell the world, that we are all terrorists or terrorist sympathizers.
Assad claims to be fighting terrorism in Syria, but he has mostly targeted opposition fighters who oppose his rule.
Analysts say his goal is to wipe out moderate rebels until there are only two groups left standing — the regime and its allies on one side, and terrorist groups on the other. Assad likely hopes that he can force the West into accepting his rule if he frames it as a choice between him and terrorists.
Airstrikes against areas with a strong Free Syrian Army presence embolden Jabhat al-Nusra, Faisal said. The militants seek to portray themselves as protectors of civilians targeted by the Assad regime.
“They can say, ‘Look at you guys protesting against us while the regime kills you,'” Faisal said. “‘We are your saviors. No one else is helping you.'”
Still, the ceasefire quelled rebel fighting in Syria long enough to allow the Assad regime to make gains against ISIS (also known as the Islamic State, ISIL, or Daesh) while it better positions itself against rebel positions, according to strategic security firm The Soufan Group. This gives Assad more legitimacy with the West while also ensuring that the regime is in a good position to fight moderate rebels if the ceasefire collapses.
The group explained in a note:
The Assad regime reenters the fighting as the unquestioned winner of the tenuous cessation in hostilities. The lull in violence allowed Assad’s forces and allies to temporarily refocus efforts towards combating the so-called Islamic State, with some significant success. Assad’s ability to retake territory controlled by the Islamic State in Palmyra and surrounding areas demonstrated to members of the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition the effectiveness of the regime’s ability to counter the Islamic State — thus providing Assad some level of increased international legitimacy.
And it’s unlikely that negotiations between the regime and the opposition will ultimately be effective. The Soufan Group notes: “So long as Iran and Russia continue to empower the Assad regime through direct military support, any efforts at genuine reconciliation will be frivolous.”