The Syrian Civil War has reached a turning point.
Over the past two weeks, the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad seized several villages north of Aleppo, the country’s largest city and one of the last remaining strongholds of Syria’s non-jihadist rebels.
The advance cut off Aleppo’s anti-regime groups from their last remaining supply lines into Turkey, and put Assad in a position to retake a fiercely contested city that had a pre-war population of over 2 million.
The regime’s advances, backed through an infusion of Iranian manpower and heavy Russian airstrikes around the city, come as efforts to resolve the conflict through diplomatic means have stalled in Geneva. And a recent quote from an unnamed western diplomat shows how facile the current diplomacy really is.
“It will be easy to get a ceasefire soon because the opposition will all be dead,” Reuters quoted the diplomat as saying. “That’s a very effective ceasefire.”
It’s an astonishing statement that speaks volumes on the current realities in Syria. In mid-2012, opposition forces were claiming high-level defections from the government’s Syrian Arab Army, sweeping through major cities, and gaining ground in Damascus.
Now, they have been so decimated that representatives of western governments are comfortable publicly discussing the rebel movement’s extermination.
The quote also reflects a shift in official western perceptions of the rebel movements’ capabilities. President Barack Obama famously dismissed the Syrian rebels as “former farmers or teachers or pharmacists” in 2014, in spite of groups like the Free Syrian Army’s success in holding strategic territory and counterbalancing the influence of jihadist groups in the country.
Western policy decisions told a more complex story. Suspected CIA assistance for the Syrian rebels, matched with occasionally strong US rhetoric on the need for Assad’s removal, suggested that the US and its partners wanted to support anti-Assad groups enough to keep the rebellion from collapsing entirely — and enough to sustain a viable non-Assad, non-jihadist alternative in case an opening for a negotiated solution to the conflict ever emerged.
The diplomat’s quote all but declares that policy a failure. In the diplomat’s view, the key to peace isn’t sustaining the rebel movement. It’s letting Assad and his partners win.
The quote also reflects the west’s exhaustion with the Syria conflict, which has dragged on for over four years and killed an estimated 470,000 people.
The war’s threat to western democracies has increased even as the prospects for Assad’s ouster wane: on February 5th, French ambassador to the US Gerard Araud tweeted that “The Syrian Civil War is becoming an existential threat to the EU,” presumably because of the strain that refugees from the conflict have put on the Union’s internal border control system and relations among the union’s member states.
It could be considered flippant to characterise the death of Syria’s non-jihadist rebel movement — which is, after all, fighting a regime accused of serial human rights abuses — as a prerequisite for “an effective ceasefire.” But it might also be an accurate reflection of the current mood in the US and Europe.
In any case, the “ceasefire” the diplomat describes wouldn’t come close to ending the Syrian Civil War.
Jihadist groups like ISIS and the Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra are still among the more powerful fighting forces on the ground. It could be years before Assad fully consolidates control over Syria’s populated areas, and even the reconquest of Aleppo could take the regime months or years.
As the past four years in Syria demonstrate, turns in battlefield momentum can say surprisingly little about where the conflict is actually going. A ceasefire with even a totally decimated rebel movement might not be enough to end the country’s conflict.
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