Assad's siege of Deraa will complicate Syrian peace efforts

With the world's focus on Afghanistan, Damascus is making inroads into rebel-held territory

Smoke rises above opposition held areas of the city of Deraa during air strikes by Syrian regime forces. AFP
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A decade ago, the Syrian city of Deraa became known to the outside world as the birthplace of the uprising demanding greater opportunity, equality and freedoms. That revolt was a pivotal moment in sparking the civil war that has since resulted in approximately half a million deaths.

Although Deraa province, of which the city is part, was handed back to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad as part of a truce deal in 2018, some of its areas have remained hubs for rebel fighters. The two sides have escalated clashes since July, leading to the intensification of Russian efforts to mediate a ceasefire. The Syrian regime, with the help of Iran-sponsored militias, undertook a major assault at the start of the week on an opposition enclave in Deraa city. By Tuesday night, with Russian help, both sides reached a deal that saw a ceasefire and the transfer of opposition fighters by bus to rebel-held territory in the north, where an explosion occurred at an opposition base earlier in the day.

The stop-start nature of efforts to bring Syria’s war to a close results in constant uncertainty about the country’s political future. The UN’s Syria envoy, Geir Pedersen, told the Security Council on Tuesday that some of the gains made in the past year and a half, a period of relative calm in the country, risk being lost by recent clashes in Deraa and elsewhere in Syria.

“The conflict in Syria is far from over,” Mr Pedersen reminded the UN.

Syrian President Bashar Al Assad receives Faleh Fayyad, chairman of Iraq's Popular Mobilisation Forces, in Damascus. AFP

At the same time, the amount of global attention the war has received has only decreased. Much of this is the result of the momentum picked up by the regime in recent years. Moscow has also used its veto power at the Security Council to prevent any co-ordinated action against Damascus by the international community.

International support for rebel groups has faded; most of their military support now comes from Turkey, and the most powerful groups left have their roots in extremist militancy. Rebel-held territories have been reduced to isolated pockets, mainly near the Turkish border, and the tide is unlikely to turn. Their fighters are growing fatigued, and so is the news cycle that previously rallied so many to their cause.

Even as Mr Pedersen addressed the Security Council on Tuesday, the world’s camera lenses were trained firmly on the dramatic events unfolding in Afghanistan. Mr Pedersen lamented before the Council that his job was “not easy”, especially considering the “lack of trust and of political will” between the Syrian government, opposition groups and regional powers.

The Syrian regime and its allies undoubtedly have the advantage – they hold most of the country and have superior capabilities in the air and on the ground. Prolonged political stalemates are exactly the kind of situation they have exploited to get to where they are now. While the new ceasefire in Deraa is a positive step, it ultimately reconcentrates the fight back to the north, where the regime believes it is only a matter of time before it succeeds. With the world’s gaze shifted elsewhere, they have even less incentive to think otherwise, and Mr Pedersen’s job will only become harder.

Published: August 26, 2021, 1:00 AM