What’s Behind the Escalation of the Syria Conflict

The real story behind the breakdown of the Geneva talks and what is actually happening in Syria is more complex than the statements by the various players.

Smoke rises after an airstrike in the rebel held area of old Aleppo, Syria April 18, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Abdalrhman Ismail

Smoke rises after an airstrike in the rebel held area of old Aleppo, Syria April 18, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Abdalrhman Ismail

The partial ceasefire in Syria, which came into effect on February 27 this year, is close to a complete breakdown. The ceasefire was announced on February 12 by the US and Russia, its chief architects. It exempted Russian and Syrian military action against the terrorist groups ISIS and the Al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, also known as Nusra Front.

The two-month-old ceasefire was fragile right from the beginning, because the US, Turkey and Saudi Arabia accused the Russian and the Syrian militaries of attacking other targets and groups like the “moderate” Free Syrian Army (FSA) and its allies, which were covered under the terms of the ceasefire. Russia and Syria denied these allegations, maintaining that they were targeting only ISIS and Nusra Front. Under Russian air cover, Syrian troops “liberated” the ancient city of Palmyra on March 26 this year, which was under ISIS control since May 2015.

The ceasefire was expected to help find a political solution to the conflict in Syria, in which more than 4,50,000 people have perished so far, according to the Syrian Centre For Policy Research, an independent think tank. Hopes for peace rose when the ceasefire was followed by resumption of talks between the Syrian government and the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), representing the opposition groups. The talks were mediated by UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura.

On April 28, de Mistura held a press conference in Geneva, in which he called upon the US and Russia to “salvage the ‘barely alive’ two-month-old ceasefire in Syria and revitalise the damaged peace process.” Earlier, the HNC had walked out of the Geneva negotiations, in protest against the intensification of fighting in Syria. The leader of the HNC also demanded that Syrian President Assad step down, and not be part of any transitional arrangement before elections are held in Syria to form a new government and write a new constitution. In response, the head of the Syrian delegation categorically stated that the position of President Assad was nonnegotiable. He said Assad’s fate was not up for discussion in Geneva.

The story behind the breakdown of the Geneva talks is more complicated than these statements by the various players involved. And in order to understand what is actually happening in Syria, that complex backstory needs to be understood.

The real story

The fact is that during the two-month ceasefire, both sides have been trying to strengthen their positions on the ground and enhance their military capabilities.

On the Russian side, more military equipment and ammunition has continued to flow into Syria, though Russia has withdrawn almost half of its fixed-wing aircraft following the partial withdrawal announced by President Putin on March 14. Despite the pullout, Russia retains the capability to escalate its military operations in Syria within hours.

Insofar as the Syrian military is concerned, it has augmented its firepower by receiving more sophisticated Russian military hardware and weapons. Moreover, it has also been joined by a significant number of Iraqi paramilitary fighters, Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. Its recent victory in Palmyra, from where it drove out the ISIS after ten months of occupation, has raised its morale. It is now aiming to recover Deir ez-Zore, Raqqa, and parts of Aleppo held by ISIS and other Jihadi groups.

On the other hand, there are reliable reports of a continued supply of weapons and fighters to ISIS and other Jihadi groups by Turkey and Saudi Arabia. These include TOW anti-tank missiles and shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles (MANPADS), which were responsible for shooting down at least one Syrian Air Force aircraft between April 18 and 30, an event that marked the escalation of the war to a new level.

The US itself has put more “boots on the ground” in Syria, in contravention of its earlier stand on the issue. President Obama announced on April 25 that the US would be deploying 250 additional troops, including Special Forces, to Syria, in addition to the 50 Special Forces deployed there in November, 2015. Two days later, on April 27, around 150 US soldiers landed in the Kurdish-controlled town of Rmeilan, in northeast Syria, according to SANA, the Syrian Arab News Agency. The Syrian government protested vehemently, describing the arrival of US troops a “blatant act of aggression,” because it violated Syria’s sovereignty. While Russian troops are in Syria at the invitation of President Assad, US soldiers are not, making their presence in the country illegal under international law.

Earlier, according to Voice of America (VOA), the US asked the Syrian Kurds to expand the runway of the Abu Hajar airport in Rmeilan in northeastern Syria, to enable large US transport aircraft such as C-130 to land. That was exactly what happened, and 150 US troops landed there. It has been pointed out by some analysts that the US Special Forces in Syria could also be used for providing targeting information to the US air force in possible future operations.

Most recently, between April 25 and April 30, fighting between the two sides has increased sharply around Aleppo, as well as in Idlib, Homs, and Hama, resulting in the deaths of more than two hundred people. While the Russian and Syrian air forces have been conducting airstrikes against rebel positions, the opposition groups have been using artillery to hit government-controlled areas. A large number of those killed were innocent civilians, who were caught in the crossfire between the two sides.

It is evident from these facts that the Syrian and Russian forces are trying to regain full control over Aleppo and other strategic areas, a move that is being fiercely resisted by the rebels who are supported by the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other allies. The increase in the number of US troops in Syria to 300 clearly indicates a more direct involvement of the US in the Syrian imbroglio. Although their stated objective behind this increase in strength is fighting the ISIS, some observers believe the troops could also be used to target other groups.

All in all, the situation in Syria has worsened considerably, fighting has intensified, and the fragile ceasefire is on the verge of breaking down unless the US and Russia step in to prevent that from happening.

Niraj Srivastava is a former Indian diplomat and ambassador.