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Syrians' peace dreams dashed again

By LIU XUAN | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2019-12-26 09:05

A man rides in a truck as civilians flee from Idlib Province on the main road near Hazano, Syria, on Tuesday. GHAITH AL-SAYED/AP

Coming year offers little hope for nation as powers seek to shore up interests

As one year makes way for another, people in Syria are still denied the peaceful life they have been craving for so long. Instead, they have witnessed yet more violence and bloodshed from the country's interminable conflicts that stem from a mix of decades-old power struggles and competing interests.

The Syrian government, led by President Bashar al-Assad, made remarkable military gains to reclaim most of the territory it had lost during the eight-year civil war. The authorities are now preparing to carry out postwar reconstruction.

Yet, a surprising decision by the United States to withdraw its troops from northern Syria hindered the process of Syria's reconstruction, and stirred up more tensions and turbulence in the region. That decision dragged more powers into an already complicated situation.

In early October, US President Donald Trump abruptly announced that the US military "will not support or be involved in" an expected military operation by Turkey in northern Syria, and US forces "would no longer be in the immediate area".

The US pullout left its Kurdish allies in Syria vulnerable to the incursion planned by their longtime enemies, the Turks.

The Syrian Kurdish fighters are seen as terrorists by Turkey, with their affiliations to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, which has waged a 35-year-long battle for autonomy within Turkey.

The power vacuum was soon filled by Turkey's fierce offensive, and weeks of attacks on Kurdish territory in northeastern Syria caused civilian casualties as thousands of Kurds fled their homes.

This year has seen the Syrian people's dreams for peace shattered once again. What's more, the conflicts of interest among powers in and outside Syria have made the situation even more complicated.

Turkey insisted on removing the Kurdish-led forces from areas along its border under Ankara's plan for a "safe zone" in northeastern Syria, a development that it says can enable the return of millions of refugees.

In the midst of Turkey's actions, Assad's forces sought to seize the opportunity to take back some territory once controlled by the Kurds. Long at odds with the Syrian government, the Kurds switched over to Assad's camp and agreed to an alliance in order to fend off the Turkish invasion.

In late October, the US changed tack and decided not to fully withdraw from Syria, claiming the U-turn was aimed at protecting the country's oilfields.

Russia stepped into the new battlefield, trying to mediate among the parties amid the hostilities along the Syrian-Turkish border.

More than two weeks after Turkey's offensive began, Russia and Turkey agreed on joint patrols in northeastern Syria to calm down tensions in the border areas.

Turkey's operations "undoubtedly undermined the previous results of fighting regional extremism", as the Kurdish fighters were at the front line of the battle against Islamic State, said Shu Meng, a researcher at the Middle East Studies Institute at Shanghai International Studies University.

The past year saw the pressure ratcheted up on the so-called Islamic State militant group, which lost Baghuz, its final territory in Syria, in March. Its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi died in a US special forces operation in late October. His death was hailed as another milestone in the war against IS, following Iraq's announcement of victory over the militants in 2017.

However, the disbanded extremist forces could take the opportunity to sneak into northeastern Syria amid the chaos.

"Although it is difficult for the IS to make a comeback or restore a large force in the short term, the threat of extremism still exists," Shu said. "The sporadic threat of extremist attacks and the infiltration of extremists will persist in this turbulent region in the long run."

In December, Russia, Turkey and Iran adopted a joint statement on Syria at the 14th round of the Astana talks held in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan.

The three countries expressed concerns over the increasing terrorist activities in Idlib, a city in northwestern Syria, and said they would continue their cooperation in eliminating terrorist groups in Syria, including the Islamic State, the al-Nusra Front and other groups designated as terrorists by the United Nations.

Under these circumstances, the most important item on the agenda is how to push forward the process of Syria's political reconstruction and reconciliation, said Yu Guoqing, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

"But the prospects for reconstruction are quite blurry since the parties concerned have differences on the Syria issue," Yu said. "They want their interests to be solidified before moving to the next step."

Russia wishes to continue to mediate among the parties to aid Syria's political reconciliation as "it plays a very important role" in the process. "Without Russia's consent, it would be difficult for the process to go forward," Yu said.

Iran is concerned more about its traditional existence in Syria, from fighting against extremist groups that may be active along the border line to its alliance with Syria.

Although a safe zone in northeastern Syria has been completed, many problems are yet to resolved, such as the settlement of refugees. This issue could be Turkey's future focus.

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