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Opinion: 'A political solution to the Syrian war is very unlikely now'

Damascus has settled on a clear strategy for a military solution, and has been brutally and successfully executing it, writes Derek O’Rouke

Derek O’Rourke

THOSE NOT CLOSELY working, or directly affected by the conflict in Syria might take comfort that peace talks aimed at bringing six years of violence to a diplomatic solution resumed in Geneva yesterday.

While similar talks have taken place on various occasions since 2011, the sharp and disheartening reality now is that a political solution to the war is more unlikely than at any time since the war began.

There is no sign that the brutal targeting of civilians and humanitarian workers will let up, and the humanitarian situation is worse than ever before.

The reasons for the improbability of a political solution are twofold

The first is the extent of external interference and influences on the war.

To illustrate how complex the conflict has become, we need only look at the “Manbij Situation”. Manbij is a town in northern Aleppo province, not far from the Syria-Turkey border. It was captured from the Islamic State by the Syrian Kurds last year.

At this moment, all four belligerents in the war – the Syrian government, the armed opposition, the Syrian Kurds, and the Islamic State – have converged on the territory around Manbij, with Islamic State the only party on the retreat.

All four are literally toe-to-toe. It is both a remarkable and frightening situation.

shutterstock_357175940 Coalition forces hitting to ISIS target in Kobani district in Syria. Source: Shutterstock/Orlok

While this convergence in itself might not sound overly complicated, factor in that the Turkish army is embedded with the armed opposition and has effectively carved out a “Turkish Buffer Zone” inside the Syrian-Turkish border; and the US military (with some UK and French troops) is embedded with the Kurds.

Meanwhile, the Syrian government forces are bolstered by Russians, Iranians, Hezbollah, and Shi’a militias from a handful of other countries in the region.

On paper, the US and Turkey are NATO allies, and their traditional enemy is Russia. However, the reason Turkey is on the ground in northern Aleppo is to fight the Syrian Kurds, who are allied with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) in Turkey, who are the Turkish government’s number one nemesis.

The fact that the US is supporting a group allied to Turkey’s sworn enemy has driven an enormous diplomatic wedge between the two countries, and forced Ankara to pivot away from Washington towards Moscow.

No sign of a peaceful solution

The second reason that there is currently no sign of a peaceful solution lies in the approach of the Syrian regime itself.

When these talks convene, the most-heard buzzwords are “political solution” and “cessation of hostilities” but nobody in the humanitarian community is holding their breath.

There have been numerous “ceasefires” announced as a result of various talks, but we have yet to actually see an end to the viciousness, much less a complete and lasting peace.

What is the point in working aimlessly towards a “political solution” when it has become abundantly clear that Damascus has settled on a clear strategy for a military solution, and has been brutally and successfully executing it?

Regime’s military solution

Throughout most of the country – other than the aforementioned “Turkish Buffer Zone” and Idleb province – the armed opposition controls only small pockets, sometimes little more than a suburb or a town, a valley or a cluster of mountains, and in most cases are besieged by the government’s army and its foreign backers.

Until the end of last year, the biggest of these pockets was the eastern side of Aleppo city, and the outcome there is a perfect illustration of the regime’s military solution: a period of siege and starvation (in some cases this has lasted four years) accompanied by sustained bombardment, followed abruptly by a period of large-scale bombardment and the offer to “reconcile”, ie surrender.

By this time, the civilian population, starved and wounded, have been driven over the edge and given in.

Integrate or relocate

The surrendering population, both armed and civilian, are presented with the choice of reintegrating with the government or relocating to Idleb province. Given the government’s record on imprisonment and torture, it is not surprising that the majority decide to go to Idleb.

This “To Hell or to Idleb” option is effectively forced displacement and is just another in a very long list of war crimes that have been perpetrated by all sides during the six years of this war.

The people who have been forced to flee places like Aleppo continue to arrive in Idleb every single day. But it is far from a safe haven. The few hospitals that remain, even those that have been set up underground, still manage to find themselves targeted by airstrikes and barrel bombs on a regular basis. Marketplaces and bakeries, and other areas where people congregate, are also regularly targeted.

This is the military solution of the Syrian regime. And right now, they are slowly turning all their military firepower on the two million people that currently inhabit Idleb Province.

Derek O’Rourke is Safety and Security Advisor for GOAL in The Middle East. GOAL support more than 750,000 people in northern Syria with food, water and other support. 

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Derek O’Rourke

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