Poor prospects for new peace efforts in Syria

International Syria Support Group meeting in Vienna, but little hope of political settlement

US secretary of state John Kerry meeting Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud in Jeddah on Sunday for consultation ahead of another week of high-stakes diplomacy on the Syria conflict. Photograph: AFP/US State Department

US secretary of state John Kerry meeting Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud in Jeddah on Sunday for consultation ahead of another week of high-stakes diplomacy on the Syria conflict. Photograph: AFP/US State Department

 

Prospects for reaching a new cessation of hostilities and a political settlement in Syria are poor ahead of today’s meeting in Vienna of the 17-member International Syria Support Group, co-chaired by the US and Russia.

The cessation of hostilities declared on February 27th eroded when government forces – freed from attack from insurgents bound by the deal – focused on fighting Islamic State and the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra.

Excluded from the agreement, these groups have acted as spoilers by rolling back initial gains by the Syrian government around Aleppo and the ancient city of Palmyra, which was recaptured by the army at the end of March.

Nusra-allied insurgents party to the cessation agreement have joined battle against the Syrian army while Islamic State and Nusra have battled each other south and east of Damascus.

Rival caliphate

Idlib

Nusra and its allies have received fresh supplies of anti-tank weapons and some shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. This could prompt Russia to return warplanes to its bases in Syria that were withdrawn in March.

The shifting situation on the ground makes it highly difficult to secure and impose a cessation of hostilities.

The US and Russia are said to have agreed that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad must step down, but not when this will happen.

The US and its partners argue he must leave office by August 1st. Russia and Iran, however, fear Syria’s armed forces and state institutions could collapse if he departs before conflicts are quelled.

Main ally

Moscow has a naval base in Tartus, which services the Mediterranean fleet, and a base in Latakia, from which Russian warplanes provide air cover for Syrian military operations.

By comparison, US and European involvement remains low-key and marginal. They have supplied training and arms for “vetted” insurgents, who have been co-opted by fundamentalists or joined Nusra and Islamic State.