Live Updates: Russian airstrikes have assisted the Assad regime in winning a few battles, but will an increasingly-confident Assad negotiate a peaceful solution to the Syria crisis?
This week Washington Post’s Liz Sly has published a provocative headline: “Russian airstrikes are working in Syria — enough to put peace talks in doubt.” The logic goes that after months of Russian bombing, primarily of Western-backed anti-Assad rebels in Syria, the Assad regime and its coalition of Hezbollah and Iranian ground troops have made limited gains in parts of Syria, incluing in Latakia province. Sly writes that “the gains are small-scale, hard-won and in terms of territory overall don’t add up to much,” but “Assad and his allies now seem convinced they can win,” making them less likely to negotiate a peaceful settlement to this crisis:
“The situation on the ground in Syria is definitely not conducive to negotiations right now,” said Lina Khatib of the Paris-based Arab Reform Initiative think tank.
Peace talks scheduled to start in Geneva next week are already in doubt because of disputes between Russia and the United States, their chief sponsors, over who should be invited.
Russia and the Syrian government are objecting to a U.S.-backed list of opposition delegates drawn up in the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh last month that includes representatives of some of the main rebel groups, saying that they won’t negotiate with people they term “terrorists.” Russia is pushing instead for the inclusion of a group of government-approved opposition figures who have remained loyal to Assad and also of Syria’s Kurds, who are fighting a somewhat different war on their own behalf in northeastern Syria.
The Chariman of the Joint Chiefs, America’s top General Joseph Dunford, now says that Russia’s involvement has stabilized Assad, making successful negotiations less likely:
“It hasn’t changed the game for us,” the general said, adding that the Syrian government was “in a worse place before, and the regime is in a better place now.”
Because of the Russian airstrikes, General Dunford said, Mr. Assad has “regained some small amounts of ground” and has managed to consolidate control in some areas where his forces had previously been under siege from opposition groups, including some backed by the United States.
Yesterday New York Times reporter Anne Barnard wrote that significant divisions remained between Russia and the United States concerning which opposition groups will be included in negotiations. If activists and armed combatants on the ground in Syria are not satisfied with who represents them at these international peace talks then whatever is agreed upon in Vienna or elsewhere will not matter:
An opposition council, known as the Syrian High Negotiations Committee, announced that its team would be led by a rebel fighter, Asaad al-Zoubi, a former Syrian Army colonel who defected and now leads American-backed insurgents in southern Syria. The team will also include Mohammad Alloush, a representative of the Army of Islam, a large Islamist faction powerful in the rebel-held outskirts of Damascus.
The appointments add credibility to the influence of the opposition’s negotiating team compared with the last round of talks two years ago. Then, the Syrian government argued that the opposition delegates held no sway with insurgents on the battlefield.
But the inclusion of fighters on the opposition’s list of negotiators also was likely to face strong objections from Mr. Assad and the Russians, who view such figures as terrorists and are inclined to blacklist them.
“Not all goes smoothly,” a Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, said Wednesday in remarks carried on the official Tass news agency. “Tough disagreements persist on who should be included in the ‘white’ and ‘black’ lists.”
Heavy Russian airstrikes continued yesterday, despite weather problems in Syria. The Associated Press’s Vladimir Isachenkov reports:
Russia’s heavy airstrikes in Syria continued Wednesday, days ahead of the hoped-for start of talks on how to end one aspect of the country’s five-year-old war, where government forces fight rebels, and militants including the extremist Islamic State have seized substantial stretches of territory.
Even though the front line is dozens of miles (kilometers) away and the area around the base is tightly controlled, the Russian military methodically patrols to make sure there is no ground threat. Soldiers toting assault rifles stood guard around the base as air force personnel bustled under the warplanes wings, attaching bombs and missiles for the next sorties.
The Russian military brought a group of Moscow-based reporters to the base Wednesday to see the operation. Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said, by the afternoon, Russian warplanes had flown about 40 sorties, with each aircraft typically hitting three to five targets on a single run. In the early stages of the bombing campaign, planes struck only one target during each mission.
Combat sorties continued after nightfall at the same high tempo, with speeding jets lighting up the night sky with their engine exhausts.
Since The Associated Press first visited the Hemeimeem base in October, the Russian military has put a second runway into service and has deployed powerful S-400 air defense weapons. Asked how long the Russian air campaign may last, Konashenkov said only that Russia’s goal is to strike extremist infrastructure in support of Syrian government troops.
Helicopter gunships sweep low around Russia's air base on the Syrian coast and long-range air-defense missile systems tower at the base's edge as warplanes take off one after another. The sound is deafening.