A crushing Russian-backed offensive in Aleppo is helping Assad gain ground — and stalling the international effort to ease him out of power.
- By John HudsonJohn Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy covering diplomacy and national security., Colum LynchColum Lynch is Foreign Policy's award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. Lynch previously wrote Foreign Policy's Turtle Bay blog, for which he was awarded the 2011 National Magazine Award for best reporting in digital media.
With the Syrian government intensifying its assault on rebels in Aleppo, the United Nations formally suspended faltering peace talks in Geneva Wednesday and appealed to the big powers to prod their Syrian proxies to end the fighting.
The move came hours after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov delivered a blunt message to the peacemakers seeking to silence the guns in Syria. Lavrov made it clear that Moscow — which has provided extensive military assistance to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — has no intention of pausing a barrage of airstrikes in the rebel-controlled areas around the cities of Aleppo and Homs.
“Russian strikes will not cease until we really defeat terrorist organizations like [al-Nusra Front],” Lavrov told reporters at a press conference in the Omani capital of Muscat, referring to an al Qaeda affiliate that has been battling both the Assad regime and the Islamic State. “And I don’t see why these airstrikes should be stopped.”
The Russian proclamation underscores one of the key weaknesses of the U.S.- and Russian-backed Syrian peace process. Any political settlement to the country’s civil war will not require that the combatants halt their fight against terrorists. The problem is that there’s no consensus about which of the many armed groups fighting in Syria should fall into that category. Syria and Russia maintain that their current military campaign is solely targeting what they describe as terrorists, but the United States says the bombs are mostly hitting opposition targets, as well as civilians.
In recent days, Syrian activists reported several hundred Russian and Syrian airstrikes in northwest Aleppo — one of the regime’s biggest offensives there since Russia opened its air campaign last September. A Syrian army official told AFP that the planned offensive sought to squash the rebels’ presence in two pro-government villages and cut off a rebel supply route from Turkey.
Frustrated by the continued airstrikes in rebel-held areas, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called upon the Syrian government and its Russian backer to halt the bombardment of opposition areas and lift the siege of hundreds of thousands of civilians. “The continued assault by Syrian regime forces — enabled by Russian airstrikes — against opposition-held areas … [has] clearly signaled the intention to seek a military solution rather than enable a political one,” he said.
State Department spokesman John Kirby added Wednesday: “It is difficult in the extreme to see how strikes against civilian targets contribute in any way to the peace process now being explored.”
Kirby said the talks were paused, in part, “because of the difficulty of seeking political solutions while humanitarian aid is continually disrupted and innocent lives are taken.”
A Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, went a step further in directly blaming Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin. “It’s very hard to have peace talks while Aleppo is getting carpet-bombed by the Russian Federation and the Assad regime,” he said.
At least 18 civilians died in the offensive, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The Syrian government’s top envoy to the peace talks, Bashar al-Jaafari, blamed the opposition for the pause, saying Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey had pushed the Riyadh-based High Negotiations Committee (HNC) “to bring about the talks’ failure,” according to a report by Syrian state television.
The decision to halt the talks amounted to an admission by the U.N. special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, that he would not be able to pursue a political settlement without the direct diplomatic intervention of the United States, Russia, and other major powers. He appealed to countries within the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) — which includes the United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, among others — to prod their Syrian allies to adopt a nationwide cease-fire and provide immediate relief to Syrian civilians. The ISSG is scheduled to meet in Munich on Feb. 11.
Moscow’s involvement in the Syrian civil war has long vexed the Obama administration. The initial waves of Russian strikes battered groups armed and trained by the United States, prompting some powerful lawmakers to demand that the Pentagon do more to protect the fighters on the ground. U.S. officials said Russia began hitting more Islamic State targets after the terrorist group took down a Russian airliner over the Sinai late last year, killing more than 200 people. But Washington and its allies say Moscow never made a decisive shift away from also bombing rebel groups opposed to the Assad regime alongside Islamic State militants.
Speaking to reporters in Geneva, de Mistura made no reference to the Russian-backed Syrian offensives. He also dodged a question about whether Moscow had effectively “bombed” the peace talks.
Still, de Mistura voiced concern that the Syrian government delegation was refusing to even discuss “humanitarian” relief measures until it had resolved some “simple procedural matters.”
A source familiar with the negotiations said the “procedural matters” referred to the Assad regime’s insistence that the talks not begin until the membership of the opposition’s negotiating team was submitted to Damascus for approval. “If the regime won’t even accept that the talks have begun, it’s tough to start the negotiations,” said the source.
During his press conference, de Mistura said the talks would resume on Feb. 25 after a “temporary pause.”
“It is not the end, and it is not the failure of the talks,” he insisted.
But getting the Syrian opposition back to the negotiating table may prove difficult. The anti-Assad coalition, which is represented by the HNC, vowed not to return to the talks until the humanitarian situation improved on the ground.
“The whole world sees who is making the negotiations fail, who is bombing civilians and starving people to death,” said Riad Hijab, the HNC’s chief coordinator.
Regardless of who’s to blame, it’s clear that the talks — which the United States and its allies insist are the only way to end the conflict — have been set back. Last week, de Mistura said that the chief aim was to make progress on a cease-fire in Syria and bring about the “reduction of violence, reduction of bombing, lifting of cease-fires, and so on.”
But by Monday, he had shifted gears, suggesting that he had no mandate to negotiate a cease-fire. “That is not something I can discuss; this is something to be discussed at the level of the ISSG,” de Mistura said.
Officials close to the talks say that de Mistura was forced to backtrack on a national cease-fire after representatives from the Syrian government and the opposition made it clear that they don’t support such a broad deal.
De Mistura expressed sympathy for the opposition’s demands that immediate steps be taken to halt the fighting and ease civilian hardship. “Talks will not be meaningful … unless they will also be accompanied by a tangible benefit for the Syrian people,” he said.
For now, at least, that seems just as improbable as it did when the talks first began.
Photo credit: Fabrice Coffrini/Getty Images