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NYT - Even Amid Cease-Fire Countdown, Syria’s Conflicts Deepen by Anne Barnard

11 September 2016
“ For all the talk of diplomacy, the five-year-old war has continued to surprise, with combatants finding new and brutal ways to shape the narrative. „
NYT - Even Amid Cease-Fire Countdown, Syrias Conflicts Deepen by Anne Barnard

Even Amid Cease-Fire Countdown, Syria’s Conflicts Deepen


The aftermath of a Saturday airstrike on a market in the rebel-controlled city of Idlib, Syria. Credit Ammar Abdullah/Reuters

BEIRUT, Lebanon — On the swirling battlefield in Syria in the past month alone, Turkey has sent in tanks, incendiary bombs have charred children and whole towns have been emptied in surrender deals that could change the country’s demographics.

All that is a stark reminder that for all the talk of diplomacy from Geneva, the war has been accelerating and shape-shifting, as unpredictable as it has ever been in its five and a half years.

Hours after the United States and Russia announced, with great fanfare, a cease-fire to start Monday in Syria, an airstrike hit holiday shoppers in insurgent-held territory on Saturday, just another day in the government’s Russian-backed air war.

The war’s myriad combatants met the diplomatic developments with skepticism, as government warplanes pounded multiple areas, killing at least 85 people, insurgents declared new offensives and Turkish tanks — which plunged for the first time into Syria just weeks ago — rolled along the border.

While the world’s attention has been diverted by elections and refugee crises, the underlying realities of the conflict in Syria have largely been forgotten. But the conflict there not only has not slowed, it is intensifying and growing more volatile, with more players diving in with conflicting interests and shifting allegiances.

Many of the players — especially President Bashar al-Assad and his allies, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah — are scrambling as the clock runs out on the tenure of President Obama, who has made clear that he will not significantly shift his Syria policy. A new president could, theoretically, usher in a more active American role in the conflict.

As the combatants rush to establish facts on the ground, often using brutal means, they could irrevocably shape Syria’s future and constrain the choices of peacemakers and warmakers alike — in ways at least as notable as the Russian-American deal, which is fraught with flaws and caveats and has at best tepid buy-in from the Syrian combatants.These are just a few of the moves regional players have made recently — trends that could slow if the cease-fire takes hold, or continue if it collapses or is not well enforced.

Turkey is laying electric wires across the Syrian border to power villages it recently helped seize, a step toward establishing the “buffer zone” it has long wanted to house Syrian refugees and fend off Syrian Kurdish militants.

Syrian Kurdish groups, angry at the Turkish incursion that blocked their ambitions of uniting territory along the border, have declared that they are moving ahead with plans to draw up a constitution for a federal semiautonomous area. The Turks, and the Syrian Arab rebels they back, consider that a provocation.

■ The Syrian government is forcing surrenders from besieged rebel towns near the capital, Damascus, and busing residents hundreds of miles to insurgent territory, in what its opponents are calling ethnic cleansing.

■ Those surrenders have been extracted in part after intensified aerial attacks with incendiary weapons, barrel bombs and suspected chlorine gas produced a stream of horrific images. In one strike in Homs Province, a woman’s body was pancaked between the roof and ceiling of her house. In another, two children’s bodies were completely charred.

Rebels in the city of Aleppo have continued to indiscriminately shell populated government areas, most recently killing a doctor, many of whose patients were Syrians displaced from pro-opposition areas.

Russia has been conducting airstrikes to help government forces encircle rebels in Aleppo and killing insurgents who could mount a counteroffensive. It did not agree to the cease-fire until the siege had been established.

Speculation is growing in the region that Turkey, which supports the rebels, has agreed to a potentially game-changing side deal with Russia: The Syrian government gets Aleppo, and Turkey gets a nod to crush Kurdish aspirations — moving ahead with or without the United States despite American ties to the Kurds, Aleppo rebels and Turkey alike.

In this ad hoc, fast-moving chess game, the outlines of an informal soft division of Syria into spheres of influence is continuing to take shape: a Turkish-sponsored rebel enclave in the north, Kurds restricted to the northeast, the Iran- and Russian-backed government in control of Damascus and the coast, and Hezbollah controlling large strips of territory bordering Lebanon.

The one thing the government and many of its opponents have always agreed on is that they oppose the division of Syria. But their foreign backers, pursuing their own interests, may insist on a de facto partition.

“In a global and regional proxy war, it may not be up to them anymore,” said Ibrahim Hamidi, a Syrian journalist with the Hayat newspaper. “Syria is gone.”

Others, like the Syrian economist Jihad Yazigi, say an informal division may be the best foundation for eventually putting Syria back together.

But in the short term, civilians are suffering as combatants adopt increasingly brutal tactics in the rush to shape the battlefield. The United States says its new deal with Russia will sharply reduce deaths from airstrikes by grounding the Syrian Air Force over much of the country, but the deal’s impact has yet to be tested.

In Aleppo alone in the last month, hospitals have been hit 13 times and ambulances eight times. Rebel shelling has at times been intense as well; a third of the 160 children killed in a one-month period this summer were in government territory.

In the run-up to the cease-fire deal, the government pushed for new gains, apparently with Russian support. Russia even walked back a near-complete cease-fire deal around Aleppo last weekend when it became clear that government forces were about to make an important advance, according to opposition representatives briefed on the negotiations, who requested anonymity because of the talks’ sensitivity.

But the United States has leaned hard on rebel groups it supports not to make new advances around Aleppo, and American-backed rebels in southern Syria have been quiescent for months on the orders of American, Jordanian and allied backers because the Americans believe any offensives would upset the talks.

That has aided the Syrian government’s strategy of squeezing rebels out of the suburbs around Damascus, not far from the Jordanian border. The way things are going, say diplomats, analysts and humanitarian workers, by the time Mr. Obama is gone the non-Islamic State opposition groups could be reduced to besieged or isolated pockets.

That would leave them little hope of regaining enough leverage to force the power-sharing deal that is nominally the American goal. It would set up a situation closer to the endgame that Mr. Assad wants and that Russia in practice has seemed to support: something approaching military victory, without any underlying national political compromise.

The Syrian government is apparently planning to use a mix of lethal pressure and local deals to subdue most of the insurgency, leaving only a choice between Mr. Assad’s continued rule and the Islamic State militant group.

But without any political deal, that seems unlikely to bring full stability, with a low-level insurgency likely to continue.

The government forces are fragmented and dependent on help from Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias, as well as Syrian pro-government militias with foreign and private backers. A victory over the rebel groups could merely set the stage for a new round of infighting.

Reporting was contributed by Hwaida Saad from Beirut; Karam Shoumali and Ceylan Yeginsu from Istanbul; Maher Samaan from Paris; David E. Sanger from Geneva; and an employee of The New York Times from Damascus, Syria.

A version of this article appears in print on September 11, 2016, on page A6 of the New York edition with the headline: Syria’s Turmoil Deepens, Even as Cease-Fire Nears.

New York Times