Whilst Lavrov and Kerry negotiate with each other in Geneva – with no reports so far of any progress being made – news from the Syrian battlefronts points to continuing changes in the overall situation.
Whilst most attention has been focused on ‘the Great Battle of Aleppo’ in the north, the British reporter Patrick Cockburn is reporting major gains by the Syrian military in the south around Damascus. According to Cockburn, who has recently toured the area
“Four years ago the city (Damascus – AM) was a jigsaw puzzle of pro-government and pro-opposition areas with each side trying to expand their heavily defended islands of authority. But today the government holds almost all of the city and its outskirts aside from a single large opposition enclave to the east, known as East Ghouta. Isolated, starved, bombarded, divided among themselves and sensing that the war is going against them, the rebel townships are surrendering on terms that leaves the government in charge.”
East Ghouta – the one remaining area near Damascus still under Jihadi control – was of the course the area where the sarin chemical weapon attack took place in August 2013.
The fact that the area around Damascus has been largely secured by the government will greatly increase its sense of security and self-confidence. As recently as last autumn President Assad’s own residence was in an isolated pocket of the city almost entirely encircled by Jihadi fighters.
Visitors to the city who met with members of the government reported finding them under siege, with constant sounds of gunfire and shell fire during meetings. The fact that all this is coming to an end will have a major psychological impact on the members of the government, increasing their self confidence as they negotiate with the Syrian opposition in Geneva.
Further north the Jihadi retreat from south west Aleppo appears to be turning into something of a rout, with almost continuous reports of further Syrian army advances in the area.
This is what commonly happens after a battle of attrition, which is what the fighting in south west Aleppo has been. Eventually one side or the other runs out of men and supplies – and above all of energy and will – at which point a sudden collapse often happens. That is what seems to be underway in south west Aleppo now.
With the Jihadi fighters in eastern Aleppo once again completely trapped, the Syrian army is dropping leaflets giving them just 2 days to surrender or leave through the corridor that has been left open for them. That is consistent with earlier reports that the Russians had told the US that they wanted the Jihadi fighters out of Aleppo by mid September.
Whether the Syrian military is really in a position to storm eastern Aleppo in 2 days if the Jihadi fighters do not surrender or leave in that time is another matter.
It looks increasingly as if in the fighting around Damascus and Aleppo the government has scored a decisive victory, with the Jihadis in Aleppo having shot their bolt.
This not explains the angry reaction of the US at the negotiations in Hangzhou. It is what probably lies behind the Turkish incursion into north east Syria. That is increasing looking like an attempt to deny the Syrian government final victory in the war by creating a zone inside Syria which the Jihadis can control.
Whilst that will cause major complications for the Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian allies in the near future, it does not detract from the transformation of the situation elsewhere in Syria achieved since the Russian intervention a year ago.
Given that the number of Russian troops and aircraft committed to Syria is relatively small, the extent to which the Russians have managed in such a relatively short time to reverse so completely the course of the war is striking.