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Talks, and the Killing That Won’t Stop

Photo by Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / ABr, via Wikimedia.

Photo by Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / ABr, via Wikimedia.

By Taylor Marvin

The killing in Syria appears to be intensifying. Late last year Bashar al-Assad’s military forces stepped up an arial bombing campaign that included an intense assault on the rebel-held city of Aleppo. Following regime forces’ gains in the city, in early February rebels announced a new offensive, which was in turn was followed by further regime bombardment. The Syrian military’s preferred aircraft weapons appear to be barrel bombs, unguided improvised explosives that indiscriminately kill civilians and were recently termed ‘barbarous’ by US Secretary of State John Kerry. The death toll from the regime’s offensive has been severe. In recent remarks, UN Ambassador Samantha Power noted that despite the ongoing UN-backed peace talks in Switzerland, the current rate of killing is unprecedented. “Reportedly, nearly 5000 people have been killed just since the Geneva II talks began,” Power stated. “That is the most concentrated period of killing in the entire duration of the conflict – that’s just in the last three weeks – so it is not enough for us to stand here and say there has been no progress, which there hasn’t, we must recognize and state very forcefully that the situation has gotten worst, and is getting worst.”

In a recent post at Political Violence at a GlanceAllison Beth Hodgkins makes the interesting argument that these two events — the deadlocked Geneva II conference and the Assad regime’s destructive bombing campaign — may not be a coincidence. By indiscriminately bombing Syrian cities at the same time it is obstinately ready to negotiate, the Assad regime is sending a clear message to rebels that foreign military intervention is not forthcoming while also emphasizing that it, not the disunited insurgency, remains the sovereign voice of Syria.

It is entirely possible that Assad’s bombing campaign is intended to send a message to both the rebels and the international community. But at the very least it demonstrates that Assad does not see the negotiations as any constraint on its military strategy. Assad seeks to demonstrate to both uncommitted Syrians and the outside world that his forces cannot be militarily defeated, that the rebellion will not be able to dislodge the regime from its western heartland, and that it is only a matter of time before he takes back the entire country. By carrying out an indiscriminately destructive, resolve-demonstrating military strategy the regime emphasizes that the eventual outcome of the conflict will be on its, not the opposition’s, terms, and that a prospective settlement that does not included Bashar al-Assad’s continued presence at the head of Syria’s government is a non-starter — “please tell those who dream of wasting our time here in such a discussion to stop it,” in the words of Syria’s deputy foreign minister.

Assad can afford this brutality because he knows that western countries no longer have any leverage over him. The very public opposition to the Obama, Cameron, and Hollande governments’ favored airstrikes proposed in the wake of the 2013 chemical weapons attacks revealed just how unpopular and politically painful even a limited military intervention in Syria would be. The Assad regime obviously crossed the red line prohibiting chemical weapons use, and the US and France ultimately settled for a toothless, Russian-brokered deal that appears unlikely to actually result in the destruction of most of the regime’s chemical weapons, and is anyway irrelevant to the wider war. While limited strikes were unlikely to have meaningfully alter the course of the Syrian war — and Obama’s red line was always an unwise policy, given the administration’s unwillingness to bind itself to serious intervention in the conflict should the red line be violated — if the Assad regime’s chemical weapons use did not bring serious consequences, bombarding cities and starving civilians will not either. Assad knows this, and the international community does as well.

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