Middle East

Geneva stalemate brings threat of worsening war

BEIRUT: Syria’s regime and rebels are likely to ratchet up military pressure on the ground after the failure of peace talks, setting the scene for a grim escalation of fighting, analysts say.

Barely a day after a second round of peace talks in Geneva broke down Saturday, the rebel Free Syrian Army fired its military chief Salim Idriss, citing “the paralysis within the military command these past months.”

The timing of the move is significant, with analysts predicting that the most likely outcome of the peace talks impasse will be a renewed focus by both sides on military operations.

“I fear that the failure of the Geneva talks will lead to military escalation – it will probably get worse before it gets better,” said Volker Perthes, director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

“Both sides will try to show that they can change the balance on the ground in their favor, and that they aren’t forced to negotiate out of weakness,” Perthes added.

Aron Lund, editor of the Carnegie Endowment’s Syria in Crisis website, echoed that position.

“Neither side seems to believe in a negotiated solution at the moment,” he told AFP.

“Even if they want one in the longer run, they’ll both want to improve their positions first. So, more war.”

Even during the negotiations, there was little let-up in military operations by both sides that are estimated to have killed more than 140,000 people since the conflict began in March 2011.

Throughout the first round of discussions, held in January in Switzerland, the regime unleashed a fierce aerial assault using explosives-packed barrel bombs on Aleppo. It also stepped up a campaign to capture Yabroud, a rebel stronghold in the Qalamoun region of rural Damascus province.

Lund said skepticism about the value of negotiations could also extend to foreign nations backing the Syrian rebels, who pushed the opposition to attend.

He said rebel forces aligned with the foreign-based political opposition could now be “rewarded” with new military supplies.

“Even those states that ultimately believe in renewed talks might want to show that torpedoing the U.N.’s negotiations will carry a cost for Assad,” he said.

Karim Emile Bitar, a senior fellow at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations, said an upcoming visit by U.S. President Barack Obama to Saudi Arabia “might prove decisive.”

Like Washington, the kingdom backs the opposition, and has reportedly stepped up its supplies of advanced weapons to rebel forces despite U.S. hesitation.

“Either the Saudis successfully pitch him [Obama] on another sustained military effort toward regime change in Syria, or Obama convinces the Saudis to rein in the rebels,” he said.

Despite the failure to achieve progress, both sides can claim some measure of victory – albeit Pyrrhic – by having failed to concede ground.

The regime leaves having escaped significant pressure from its allies, particularly Russia, to discuss a transitional government, while the opposition managed to secure backing from some key rebel forces on the ground.

But the nature of those victories underscores the intractability of the conflict and the likelihood of continued violence, said Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.

“A large majority of the military opposition has little interest in a political solution to the conflict and this is unlikely to change,” he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 18, 2014, on page 8.




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