BEIRUT—Syrian peace talks due next week are looking increasingly moot as a string of recent battlefield victories by government troops have bolstered President Bashar Assad’s hand and plunged the rebels into disarray.
The government’s advances add to the obstacles that have scuttled chances of halting — at least anytime soon — the five-year civil war that has killed a quarter of a million people, displaced half the country and enabled the radical ISIS group to seize a third of Syria’s territory.
A proxy war on the ground between regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia, disorganization among the rebels after a top commander and several other local leaders were killed, rigid and disparate U.S. and Russian positions regarding Assad’s future, and a spat over which groups will be invited to the negotiating table have all added to the conflagration.
“I don’t think we should expect any major results,” said Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle Eastern politics at the London School of Economics. “Assad really believes that time is on his side, that he is winning, that the opposition is in tatters.”
The Jan. 25 talks in Geneva are meant to start a political process to end the conflict that started in 2011 as a largely peaceful uprising against Assad’s rule but escalated into an all-out war after a harsh state crackdown. The plan calls for cease-fires in parallel to the talks, a new constitution and elections in a year and a half.
The fighting has intensified since Russia intervened militarily with airstrikes last September, ostensibly to target ISIS extremists and other extremists. But the airstrikes helped Assad push back rebels on several fronts and capture dozens of villages in the north and west.
In November, government troops broke a three-year siege of the Kweiras air base in the northern province of Aleppo, and in December they captured another air base, Marj al-Sultan, in an opposition stronghold near the capital, Damascus. Allied fighters from the Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah group, as well as Iranian military advisers and pro-government militias, have helped the army take several areas in and around Latakia province, the heartland of Assad’s minority Alawite sect, which dominates the military and government.
The latest victory came last week with the capture of the town of Salma, one of the most significant government advances since the Russian air campaign began. Overlooking the coast, it is only 12 kilometers (seven miles) from the border with Turkey, a key supporter of rebels in the area.
“The Syrian army has shifted from a defensive mode to offense,” said Gerges. “Before the Russian intervention the army was bleeding, it was desperately trying to maintain its position, but now it has achieved major tactical gains on many fronts.”
This does not bode well for the Geneva talks, as neither side will be interested in making compromises while the front lines are in a state of flux, Gerges added.
Damascus officials have indicated lately that Syria’s future will be decided on the battlefield, and have repeatedly said the rebels — whom they refer to as “terrorists” — should not expect to gain anything from the talks that they could not achieve on the ground.
Meanwhile, relations have been deteriorating between the two main players backing opposite sides — Saudi Arabia and Iran. The kingdom’s execution earlier this month of a Shiite cleric who had criticized the ruling family brought a wave of recriminations from Tehran. Protesters attacked Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran, prompting Riyadh to cut diplomatic ties.
That escalation has undermined hopes that arose at the United Nations in December, when a resolution established a new “road map” set to begin with the Geneva talks.
The Saudis and the Iranians are already facing off in Yemen, where the kingdom is fighting Shiite rebels who are supported by Tehran. Riyadh is highly skeptical of the nuclear deal with Iran and wary of the billions of dollars that will fill Tehran’s coffers now that international sanctions have been lifted.
“The Saudis are in a very confrontational mood, and that’s not just with regard to Syria but also in Yemen,” said Shadi Hamid, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy.
While Syrian opposition factions outside the country say they hope to see some confidence-building measures by Assad before the Geneva talks, dozens of insurgent groups within Syria said last week they wouldn’t attend at all unless humanitarian access was granted to areas under siege and prisoners were released.
“The regime is trying to achieve as much as possible on the ground before the peace talks, which will be hollow,” said Zakaria Ahmad, a spokesman for a moderate rebel faction operating near the Turkish border.
It remains unclear which rebel groups will be invited to join the talks. Russia and Syria want to bar many moderate Islamic groups which are backed by the Saudis, who will insist on giving them a place at the table.
Meanwhile, top international players — the United States and Russia — disagree on the basic issue of whether Assad should be allowed to stay on and run in presidential elections or if he should step down as part of the transition. The Saudis and much of the West are adamant that he should leave, while Iran and Russia say his fate should be decided in elections.
“As long as the basic question of Assad’s future is not resolved there will be no elections — it’s the central issue,” said Rami Khouri of the American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs.