Syria's war has taken a new turn with the expected recapture of Raqa from the Islamic State, but world leaders gathered at the United Nations this week seem to be paying little attention.
Syria’s war has taken a new turn with the expected recapture of Raqa from the Islamic State, but world leaders gathered at the United Nations this week seem to be paying little attention. Once the focal point of a myriad of high-powered meetings during the UN General Assembly, Syria this year dropped off the diplomatic agenda, dwarfed by the crisis over North Korea and the Iran nuclear deal. Last year, tensions were running high at the UN assembly, with Western powers locked in heated exchanges with Russia and Iran, the Syrian government’s allies, over the offensive against rebel-held Aleppo. Since then, President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have retaken Aleppo and most of the opposition-held territory, backed by Moscow and Tehran. The Islamic State (IS) group is close to defeat in its two remaining Syrian strongholds: Raqa and Deir Ezzor. Russia, Iran and Turkey have set up four “de-escalation zones” in Syria and are working with the United States and Jordan in the south to bring about ceasefires that have eased the violence.
“The war in Syria is not over yet,” European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini reminded foreign ministers at an EU-hosted meeting on Syria on Thursday. But she acknowledged that “the situation on the ground has improved. Daesh (IS) has been driven out from its strongholds,” and fighting has eased. “For many Syrians, this makes the difference between life and death.” Now in its seventh year of war that has left 330,000 dead, Syria has become an extremely complex conflict, but diplomatic efforts remain low profile.
The Kurdish issue and Israel’s growing involvement, fueled by fears that neighboring Syria will become a springboard for Iran, are shaping up as new crises, diplomats say. “Nothing is resolved”, said a European diplomat, who asked not to be named. The country remains deeply divided – some would call it a de-facto partition – five million Syrians are still refugees and a new outbreak of fighting is still possible, he said.
During his address to the assembly, French President Emmanuel Macron called for the establishment of a new Syria “contact group” to push for a diplomatic solution. Russia and the United States reacted coolly to the proposal. The administration of President Donald Trump has yet to define its Syria strategy beyond fighting IS militants and is refusing to give Iran, a key player in the war, a seat at the table.
“If the contact group had Iran in it, that would be difficult for us,” a senior US official told AFP this week following a meeting between the United States and allies on Syria. “The Americans have dropped out of the search for a political solution,” said the European diplomat. “Their focus is solely military: defeating IS.” The United Nations is planning to convene a new round of peace talks in the coming weeks between Syria’s government and the opposition, even though past negotiations have failed to yield more than incremental progress.