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As peace talks between interested world powers and the various Syrian belligerents play out in Switzerland, the fighting continues to rage in the Middle Eastern country.
In Montreux, rpresentatives of the Syrian government and rebel forces opened the first face-to-face talks between the two sides since Syria's civil war began nearly three years ago.
The earliest stages of the talks are focusing on a ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid into besieged rebel-held areas in the city of Homs. Negotiations will also focus on the release of prisoners of conscience, such as women and children.
The so-called “Geneva II” talks being held in Switzerland are certainly a significant step for the Syrian peace process. Many commentators have applauded the resolution of both sides to sit down and attempt to find common ground, however tenuous.
Yet the assumption that there are only two sides to the conflict simplifies the fighting and disregards the various rebel factions holding mutually exclusive goals for transition.
No group sitting at the table can rightfully claim to represent the opposition to Mr al Assad’s regime and this will severely limit the chances for a negotiated end to the fighting.
Russia, one of the sponsors of the talks, has offered official support for a proposed alliance between Syrian President Bashar al Assad's regime and moderate opposition forces against Islamist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), which Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said have no place in the talks.
A difficult transition
Iran was invited to the discussion by the UN, which angered the Syrian opposition. The US requested that the Iran invitation be rescinded, which it duly was, before the negotiations began.
Intervening as a veto power to disinvite Iran shows just how difficult and tentative the nascent rapprochement between the US and Iran will be in the future. A mix of backward steps and forward progress can be expected as the two powers weigh each other’s true motivations and goals.
The Syrian opposition expects the regime to only be talking about a peaceful transition. However, this is simply not in the interest of the al Assad ruling party. Mr al Assad is under no threat to negotiate away his control over the country.
Ultimately, the negotiations in Montreux are unlikely to find a conclusion to the three-year conflict in Syria. The country is still as divided as it ever was and is now little more than a geographical representation than a true nation-state.
The various factions of the Syrian opposition are linked only by their common goal of removing Mr al Assad from power. Any ancillary goals they may wish for, down to which faction or ethnic group should replace the regime, are far from reconciled or mutual.
The only force in the country at the beginning of 2014 with even a semblance of connectivity and coherency remains the Alawite regime (and maybe the al Qaeda groups).
Discussion in Switzerland is therefore more of a theatrical display by Western powers to show the world it is doing something to end the killing. The only success the United States has achieved is in formulating a programme to dispose of Syria’s chemical weapons.
However, extracting Syria’s chemical weapons will not be an overnight job, and could take years or decades. Given the constant ebb and flow of the civil war, much of this weaponry is unlikely to be found and could even leave the country via the many smuggling routes into the greater Middle East.
Meanwhile, the civil war burns
Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s forces still control the all-important strategic corridor connecting the ethnic Alawite core on the Mediterranean coast to Damascus.
And contest for control over the Homs-Hama-Aleppo highway corridor is presently weighted to regime forces. Both regions are critical for the regime because of the high concentrations of civilian supporters living there, as well as Mr al Assad’s ethnic Alawite group.
Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant-political group, also threw its considerable weight behind the regime in 2013. The group’s goal is in maintaining the connection between its stronghold in the Lebanese Bekaa Valley and Damascus to continue trade and free travel.
Although the fighting in Syria has required large amounts of men and material from the militant group, it has managed to ensure this crucial connection and will probably keep this route open for the foreseeable future.
However, on its home front in Lebanon, various Sunni Salafist groups backed by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have begun targeting Hezbollah strongholds in an attempt to disrupt and distract the group from their efforts in Syria.
With expert military assistance from Hezbollah, continued arms and personnel deliveries from Iran, a divided and fratricidal opposition, a disinterested and distracted West, and with Turkey trying to look the other way, the commanding position of the Alawite regime is unlikely to change this year.
Unless they experience a drastic and strategically devastating military loss or the removal of support from one or all of Mr al Assad’s allies, the Syrian President can essentially prosecute the civil war in whichever way he pleases.
He has already shown to the international community on numerous occasions that his forces can target rebel positions at will and with any type of conventional weaponry.
What to expect in 2014
During the talks in Switzerland, there will be an agreed cease-fire in Syria. Mr al Assad will use the time at the Montreux conference to bolster his forces in the north around Aleppo in preparation for the spring fighting season.
He will also look to reposition his limited resources along the corridor from Damascus to Aleppo where the bulk of the fighting in 2014 is likely to recur.
South of Damascus, near the borders of Jordan and Israel, will also see more fighting this year and the Israel Defence Force (IDF) will be monitoring this region closely.
Israel will continue to plan for interdiction strikes into Syria using fighter aircraft if it receives intelligence about weapons or other threats moving out of Syria.
Although the inclusion of representatives from the Syrian regime at the talks is a sign that they wish to talk, it by no means indicates Mr al Assad is ready to give up power.
The civil war has raged for more than three years with no end in sight. Today Mr al Assad is under no pressure to negotiate his way out of control and this fact will not change in 2014.
As the discussions freeze in Europe, the various belligerents in Syria gear up for another fighting season as the weather in Syria begins to turn warmer.
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