Russia saved Assad regime but no peace settlement on horizon
DAMASCUS - Russia's decision two years ago to intervene militarily in Syria appears to have saved Bashar al-Assad's regime but a peace settlement seems ever more elusive, analysts say.
On Friday, Syrian government troops retook Deir Ezzor, the last major city where the Islamic State group had a presence. Assad's forces did so with Russian air support.
The successful action edged the Syrian president closer to what looks like victory in the six-year-long war.
"Russia has won the war," foreign affairs analyst Vladimir Frolov said, "but it remains unclear if it can win peace in Syria."
When the Russian army began its bombing campaign in support of Assad's government in September 2015, the regime seemed fragile and its army was exhausted and demoralised by major setbacks against rebel groups and jihadists.
Moscow demonstrated its military force by sending helicopters, submarines, bomber aircraft and long distance missiles to hit groups fighting the regime.
Supported by Russia's unrelenting bombing, Assad's forces regained control of more than half the country, recapturing the ancient city of Palmyra from IS in a symbolic victory and chasing rebel groups out of their stronghold of Aleppo in the north.
- 'Get out of Syria' -
The difficulty for Moscow now is to balance its military success with a political process and put an end to a conflict that has killed more than 330,000 people and displaced millions.
"The strategy is simple: get out of Syria through the negotiation process," said Alexander Shumilin, a Middle East scholar at the Institute for US and Canadian Studies.
"It is clear that these military operations will not lead to political solutions, without which nothing can be achieved."
The attempts for peace talks under Moscow's watch started in January this year with the first conference in Astana, Kazakhstan, when regime envoys and representatives of Syrian rebel groups that still control considerable territories gathered for the first time.
Initiated by Assad's allies Russia and Iran, the Astana negotiations led to the creation of "de-escalation zones," which limit the violence inside designated areas without implementing a real cease fire.
Under the agreement that also involves rebels' backer Turkey, Russian military police were deployed to monitor the zones.
The Astana talks have run in parallel to repeated negotiations held in Geneva with the backing of the United Nations. The latter have failed to gain traction.
The fate of Assad remains a huge stumbling block, preventing global players from reaching a peace settlement over Syria.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly blocked Western efforts to oust Assad but his departure remains a critical point Syrian opposition groups insist on.
- 'Never ending trap' -
Frolov said Moscow could not and did not want to remove Assad.
"Russia expects Assad's regime to stay forever with slight modifications and embellishments sold internationally as an all-inclusive national reconciliation government," he said.
Alexei Malashenko, head of research at the Dialogue of Civilisations Institute, added: "Russia has found itself in a never ending trap because it cannot reach a consensus on Syria."
He also said that Moscow cannot bear the costs of reconstructing the country alone.
Aware of the deadlock, Russia, Turkey and Iran announced a new initiative this week, pledging to bring Assad's regime and its opponents together for a "congress" in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on November 18.
Moscow said 33 Syrian organisations including pro-regime forces and the full spectrum of opposition groups had been invited.
But Syrian opposition groups in exile have said they will boycott the talks, calling them a joke.
"Sochi will not work because Assad, supported by Iran, is uncompromising and thinks he has nothing to sacrifice," said Shumilin.
"Assad wants a military victory while Russia wants negotiations."