All but defeated, Syrian opposition groups continue to launch offensives
Smoke rises from buildings following an airstrike on Jobar, an opposition-held district on the eastern outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus on March 28, 2017. (AFP/Amer Almohibany)
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After the fall of opposition-held eastern Aleppo, many voices asked if the Syrian Civil War was ending. Diplomatic talk turned to reconstruction, with a conference convening today in Brussels to discuss alleviating the humanitarian crisis in the country.
As the diplomats sat down, however, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces launched another devastating attack on civilians, killing at least 70 - including many children - with chemical weapons. An air raid on a clinic where the wounded were being treated quickly followed.
It was only the most deadly recent example of the grinding violence that the Syrian government inflicts on opposition-held areas.
In recent weeks, however, armed opposition groups have also surprised many by launching offensives in different parts of the country.
An attack in Jobar, Damascus, disrupted life in the government-held parts of the capital as rockets fired by opposition groups fell in the city’s streets - a common occurrence in earlier years of the war. After heavy fighting, the ground was retaken by the government.
A major offensive in Hama by al-Qaeda-linked factions initially gained ground against Assad’s forces, but here too the opposition was beaten back.
In addition, opposition groups have taken territory in the south of the country from Daesh, as the extremist group is under pressure from US, Iraqi and US-supported troops in Raqqa and Mosul.
However, Aron Lund, a fellow with the Century Foundation, cautioned against reading too much into the offensives. “The recent offensives in Deraa, Hama, and Damascus seemed more like desperate defensive measures. Barring some major change in the fundamentals, the Syrian opposition is strategically defeated.”
“Remaining opposition territories are either isolated and on track for destruction, or unsuited as platforms for an internationally backed war against Assad.”
Valerie Szybala, Executive Director of the Syria Institute, said that the recent offensives were a message from opposition groups not to write them off. “In these offensives they took advantage of the Syrian government's achilles heel: manpower. Even with significant support from Iran-backed militias, the Assad regime still does not have the manpower to defend on multiple fronts at once.”
Szybala explained that the government was only able to retake areas lost with Russian support. “While they may make short term gains, it is unlikely that a fractured opposition will be able to sustain any offensives in the face of a Russian response.”
Lund said that the question is now how effectively the government can take advantage of the opposition’s weakness in order to bring about victory.
“It remains to be seen how well the government can exploit its advantage and translate it into military advances, economic regeneration, and diplomatic revival. There are severe constraints to its capacity even when it is up against a weakened opposition and softening international opposition.”
The United States last week signalled a significant shift in the diplomatic landscape when it said it was no longer focused on removing Assad. The move provoked fresh worries that Assad would not be held accountable for the war crimes his government has committed.
Ahead of the Brussels conference, Iverna McGowan, Director of Amnesty International’s European Institutions office, called for justice to be its focus. “If a just and sustainable peace in Syria is to be achieved, leaders at the Brussels conference must ensure that accountability is at the centre of their discussions.”
Szybala, however, was pessimistic that the international community had the will to bring about peace. “There is a lot that key international stakeholders could be doing to change the course of the war, but it requires a level of commitment and political/military capital aimed at the root drivers of this conflict (the Syrian government, Russia, and Iran) that nobody is willing to expend.”
In the absence of any force willing to rein in the warring parties, it seems that Syria’s civilians will continue to suffer, even if Assad has broadly secured his victory. The Syrian Network for Human Rights reported that 1134 civilians were killed in March, the majority of them by government and Russian forces.
Szybala said that she saw increasing hopelessness when talking with Syrians.
“Many Syrians are giving up on the idea of justice, and on the prospects of ever returning home.”
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