BEIRUT: The U.N. says it wants to resume Syria peace talks in late August, but more than five years after anti-government protests erupted in 2011, the country is still consumed by fighting.
Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and once its commercial hub, is the focal point of the day’s fighting after government forces closed off the last remaining opposition supply line, trapping tens of thousands of people inside with dwindling resources. But the civil war is also being fought daily beyond Aleppo, as Syrian government forces steadily claw back territory around the capital, Damascus, and the international community targets the Islamic State group, though with little visible success.
Here’s a look at hotspots beyond Aleppo and general peace prospects for Syria:
Aleppo is often viewed as the weather vane of the Syrian conflict, perhaps now more than ever. Four years after rebels captured much of the city’s eastern districts, government forces aided by massive Russian air power and Iranian-backed militias have encircled the area and urged rebels to turn themselves in. It’s a tactic the government has successfully used in Homs and other locations to force an opposition surrender.
Rebels have launched a fierce counteroffensive to break the siege, which has trapped tens of thousands of residents amid warnings of a potential catastrophe. The city, near the border with Turkey, is tied to regional geopolitics. The rebels are backed by Turkey and it remains to be seen how that country’s recent political turmoil will affect the battle for Aleppo.
While the world’s attention is on Aleppo, rebels and the government are fighting in other areas as well — none more consequential than around the outskirts of the capital, Damascus.
After a ring of suburbs broke with Damascus rule early in the war, government forces have besieged the towns and bombarded them from the air and ground. The tactics, denounced by rights groups as collective punishment against the civilian population, are slowly paying off. In May, pro-government forces seized vital farmland to the east of Damascus, tightening the noose on already exhausted residents and rebels.
There are other fronts open between the rebels and the government as well, but none are seen as important as the ones around Aleppo and Damascus.
In 2013, the U.N. labelled the Syria war as the worst humanitarian disaster since the Cold War. Things since then have only gotten worse.
Nearly 5 million Syrians are registered with the U.N. as refugees — that is, displaced beyond Syria’s borders — in what is the largest refugee population today. The U.N. refugee agency says a further 6.5 million are displaced inside the country. Some 600,000 Syrians are trapped in sieges, needing urgent access to food and medical supplies, the U.N. says. A further 250,000 are trapped by government forces in eastern Aleppo.
Reliable casualty estimates are hard to come by. When the U.N. stopped tallying those killed in the summer of 2015, its count stood at a quarter-million dead. Other observers put the death toll between 280,000 and 470,000. Various charities and international organizations warn of a lost generation of Syrian children that suffers from psychosocial trauma and has been cut off from basic schooling and health services.
FIGHT AGAINST ISLAMIC STATE GROUP
The global war against the Islamic State group continues to be the priority for foreign governments involved in Syria. A U.S.-led coalition is working with predominantly Kurdish ground forces fighting IS, providing air and other logistical support. Despite significant loss of territory over the past year, IS still holds on to the city of Raqqa as the militant group’s de facto capital of its self-declared caliphate over parts of Syria and Iraq, and still has the ability to launch surprise offensives.
The latest battles against IS revolves around Manbij, a vital border satellite to Raqqa. The Syria Democratic Forces, a U.S.-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab groups, is spearheading the fight in Manbij and by some estimates has managed to secure control of around 60 percent of the town.
RUSSIA-US MILITARY TALKS
The United States and Russia are engaged in talks to boost military cooperation and intelligence sharing in Syria. Much of what happens next depends on whether Moscow and Washington seal the deal. Their coordination is focused on targeting al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, the Levant Conquest Front, formerly known as the Nusra Front.
In a pre-emptive move, the group announced last week it had changed its name and disassociated from al-Qaida central — a move dismissed by the U.S., Russia and Syria as merely tactical. The group is embedded with other rebel outfits in Syria and is one of the most effective fighting forces against President Bashar Assad’s troops. An air campaign against the Levant Conquest Front may ultimately be detrimental to the wider anti-Assad opposition. Underlining the group’s major role in the fighting in Aleppo, its leader, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, issued an audio on Friday rallying his fighters and vowing to “crush Russian tyranny … under the feet of the mujahedeen,” or holy warriors, in Aleppo.
The U.N.’s special envoy for Syria has set late August as a target for resuming peace talks, but it’s unclear who could represent the fractured opposition, and with the government on the front foot in Syria, it is unlikely to make any major concessions in Geneva.
This augurs more conflict for the country until the government can secure what some analysts call “useful Syria” — a portion containing the four largest cities and Syria’s Mediterranean coast — while leaving the fates of the jihadi-controlled northwest, the Kurdish-controlled north, and the Islamic State-controlled east to the chess game of international diplomacy.
Looking past the shades of color on the map, there are practically no victors to this war. Even if, or when, the government retakes the alleged target stretch of Syria, it will still face the massive task of rebuilding a shattered economy and wrestling back control from militias and profiteers who have built robust patronage networks that rival the traditional hierarchies of the Assad family’s authoritarian rule.