As the devastating war in Syria entered its fifth year yesterday, the US said it would have to negotiate with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as it aims to “reignite” new peace talks.
More than 215,000 people have been killed and half of the country’s population displaced, prompting human rights groups to accuse the international community of “failing Syria.”
Amid the dragging stalemate on the ground, the country has been carved up between government forces, militant groups, Kurdish fighters and the remaining non-militant rebels.
Diplomacy remains stalled, with two rounds of peace talks achieving no progress and even a proposal for a local ceasefire in the second city Aleppo fizzling out.
After years of insisting Assad’s days were numbered, US Secretary of State John Kerry conceded Washington would have to negotiate with the iron-fisted leader to end the war.
“Well, we have to negotiate in the end. We’ve always been willing to negotiate in the context of the Geneva I process,” Kerry said in an interview with CBS television aired yesterday.
Deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf, however, denied there was any shift in US policy.
“@JohnKerry repeated long-standing policy that we need negotiated process w/regime at table - did not say we wld negotiate directly w/Assad,” she said in a message on her Twitter account.
Kerry acknowledged that it would need increased pressure on Assad, “to make it clear to him that there is a determination by everybody to seek that political outcome and change his calculation about negotiating.”
“That’s underway right now. And I am convinced that, with the efforts of our allies and others, there will be increased pressure on Assad.”
The conflict began as an anti-government uprising, with protesters taking to the streets on March 15, 2011, inspired by similar revolts in Egypt and Tunisia.
But a fierce government crackdown on the demonstrations prompted a militarisation of the uprising and its descent into today’s brutal multifront conflict.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 215,518 people had been killed in the past four years, nearly a third of them civilians and including more than 10,000 children.
The full toll is likely to be even higher, because the fate of tens of thousands of missing people remains unknown.
The UN refugee agency UNHCR says Syria is now “the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era.”
Around 4mn people have fled abroad, with more than a million taking refuge in neighbouring Lebanon, while others are sheltered in Jordan and Turkey - placing a huge strain on those countries.
Inside Syria, more than 7mn people have been displaced, and the UN says around 60% of the population now lives in poverty.
The country’s infrastructure has been decimated, and economists say the economy has been set back by some 30 years.
Despite international outrage at the death toll, and allegations that his regime used chemical weapons against its own people in August 2013, Assad has clung to power.
And Assad’s forces are now moving to encircle rebels in Aleppo to the north.
The assaults have been aided by the government’s increasing reliance on crude barrel bombs, which Assad denies using despite extensive documentation.
His government has been emboldened by both its military successes and an apparent shift in international rhetoric.
Calls for his resignation have been notably more muted as international attention shifts to the threat posed by the Islamic State group.
Diplomats describe a new willingness to countenance a role for Assad in Syria’s future, although Washington still insists that he has lost all legitimacy and must step down.
“Assad didn’t want to negotiate,” Kerry told CBS television, about the last failed rounds of peace talks in Geneva.
“What we’re pushing for is to get him to come and do that,” he replied when asked if he would negotiate with Assad.
Russia, a key Assad ally, is floating its own dialogue process, and will host talks in Moscow in April, but it remains unclear if the internationally recognised opposition will attend.

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