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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Syria war winds down but tangled map belies conflict ahead

the war seems on one level to be winding down, largely because of Russian-backed government victories

The support of Vladimir Putin has given Syrian president Bashar Al Assad free rein to hit back at rebels. Mikhail Klimentyev / Sputnik
The support of Vladimir Putin has given Syrian president Bashar Al Assad free rein to hit back at rebels. Mikhail Klimentyev / Sputnik

At a news conference announcing the end of yet another fruitless round of peace talks in Geneva last week, the UN envoy for Syria held up a color-coded map showing the divisions of territorial control in the war-torn country.

The multi-colored image displayed by a frustrated Staffan de Mistura is what Syria looks like today: a collage of mostly ravaged enclaves controlled by an assorted mix of local and foreign powers, each with a stake in the country's ongoing civil war.

Nearly seven years into the conflict, the war seems on one level to be winding down, largely because of Russian-backed government victories and local cease-fires aimed at freezing the lines of conflict.

Underscoring this perception is the fact that president Bashar Al Assad — however battered and bruised — has survived the conflict, sitting more comfortably now than at any time since the rebellion against his rule erupted in March 2011. The fight against the Islamic State group, which at one point controlled a third of the country, is almost over, with both Russia and the United States declaring victory in their mission to defeat the extremist group.

Yet the country is still a tangled mess, with violent conflict likely to continue for the foreseeable future. Despite stepped-up diplomatic efforts, the parties are no closer to reaching a peace settlement than they were in 2012, when the first round of peace talks was held in Switzerland.

Mr Al Assad will not voluntarily step aside and will likely stay on at least until 2021, when his current second presidential term ends. The opposition — down but not out — has not completely abandoned its goal of toppling him militarily. Fierce fighting continues in some areas and a humanitarian catastrophe unfolds in a government-besieged area a short drive away from the capital of Damascus.

It may have shifted to a more stable and less violent phase, but the Syrian conflict is likely to bleed through 2018 and potentially longer, as prospects for new conflicts loom large.

Thanks to Russia's military intervention, Syrian government forces have retaken large swaths of rebel and IS-held areas, including main cities such as Homs, Aleppo and most recently, Deir el-Zour. This month, they entered the rebel-held province of Idlib in northern Syria for the first time in years.

Toppling AMr Al Assad militarily — a prospect that appeared within reach less than two years ago — now seems to have been ruled out and even his most vocal opponents have moved away from their goal of ousting him.

But there are limitations to the Syrian army's military conquests and despite the assistance from allies Iran and Russia, Mr Al Assad is unlikely to achieve lasting control over the entire country. In fact, nearly half Syria's territory remains outside his control and major bloodshed still lies ahead if he moves to seize those areas, including the sprawling rebel-held Eastern Ghouta region near the capital and the northern province of Idlib, where al-Qaida-linked militants dominate.

Syrian Kurds in the north have also carved up a huge semi-autonomous enclave for themselves, estimated at nearly a quarter of the country. Mr Al Assad will likely seek to reassert his presence there at some point. This week, he called the Kurds "traitors" for working with a foreign country. A Kurdish-dominated group known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, backed by U.S. air power and ground support, cleared large areas from the Islamic State group in northern Syria, including the city of Raqqa which the extremist group had turned into its de facto capital.

Another potential flashpoint is the US presence in Syria. Even though the fight against IS has almost concluded, America has signaled it will keep troops in Syria until an overall peace settlement is reached.

During Russian president Vladimir Putin's brief visit to a Russian air base in Syria where he met Mr Al Assad earlier this month, a video that surfaced on the internet caught the moment a Russian general grabbed him by the arm, holding him back to allow Mr Putin to walk ahead.

It may have been a friendly maneuver, but for many Syria observers, the video was an apt reflection of just how much Assad owed Putin and how much sovereignty Assad has had to give up to stay in power.