Middle East

Syria crisis: A new year without hope

Civilians in Aleppo (02/01/15) Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The war is about to enter its fifth year, with no end in sight

The 12 months between the first round of the Geneva II peace talks in January 2014 and the Moscow peace talks planned for January 2015 have turned out to be the deadliest since the start of the Syrian uprising four years ago.

This time last year, Syrians had high hopes in the run-up to the international peace conference.

Backed by the UN, US and Russia, the Geneva talks offered a chance for Syrians to end the bloodshed. But it was not to be: almost 6,000 people were killed on the ground in Syria as representatives of the government and opposition failed to agree even on an agenda for the discussions.

A further 70,000 people were killed over the rest of the year.

The UN special envoy at the time, Lakhdar Brahimi, apologised to the Syrian people for the failure of the talks, and resigned a few months later.

'Starve of surrender'

2014 was a year of defeat and disappointment for the opposition and a year of gains for President Bashar al-Assad, but at a very high price paid by civilians.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The al-Waer district of Homs came under attack after rebels were evacuated from the Old City

Throughout the year, the government tried to promote what it called "local ceasefires", where in reality a policy of "starve or surrender" was used as a way of subduing residents of rebel-held areas.

The regime's three-year siege of the Old City of Homs was only lifted after an Iranian-brokered deal, tied to the release of Iranian fighters held by the rebel Islamic Front in the north.

Soon after the siege was lifted, another rebel-held district of Homs - al-Wair in the north-western outskirts, where thousands of displaced civilians were seeking refuge - came under attack.

In parts of the capital Damascus, too, regime sieges were lifted, only to be imposed again soon afterwards.

The Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, on the southern edge of Damascus, is reported to be one of the places once again under siege.

Speaking at a conference in Chatham House in London in November, Mr Brahimi said the regime's ceasefire proposals were part of its war plan, not peace plan.

Jihadist threat

There is one message the government wants to send - that its power will prevail and there is no room for compromise.

That was clear in the 2012 parliamentary elections and in June's presidential poll, which was a foregone conclusion despite the presence of two candidates besides Mr Assad on the ballots.

Many would argue that the president would not have survived without the backing of Russia and in particular Iran, which is said to be in charge of military strategy, has boots on the ground and is propping up the government financially.

However, while the Assad regime sees itself as winning and is aiming to regain control of all of Syria, there is a third entity that is now asserting itself that has declared both the government and the rebels as enemies.

Islamic State (IS) has declared a caliphate in areas under its control across large parts of Syria and neighbouring Iraq.

Its rise has spelt another defeat for Syria's revolutionaries who want freedom and democracy. Now they have two fronts on which to fight.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The rise of Islamic State has complicated the search for an end to the fighting in Syria

IS has sought to erase the borders drawn up by Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916.

Although the jihadist group has posed a threat in Syria since it announced its existence in the country in early 2013, regime forces failed to attack its bases in northern Syria, particularly in the province of Raqqa.

The US-led coalition launched air strikes on the group's positions in September after three Western hostages were beheaded by IS and it launched an offensive on the Kurdish enclave around Kobane.

By that time the group had already beheaded several hundred Syrians, though that did not move the international community to act.

In the first week of US air strikes on IS, President Assad's forces launched nearly 600 air strikes and barrel bomb attacks on rebel-held areas. A majority of the victims were civilians - adding to Syrians' feeling that they were being abandoned.

Long shot

The year ended with the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) announcing that it would have to suspend its food voucher scheme for Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt because of a lack of funds.

The agency eventually received the money it needed to resume the scheme, but it demonstrated how the international community was failing the Syrians even on a humanitarian level, deepening doubts over how it could help stop the war.

Now the world is looking at whether a plan by the new UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, for local ceasefires or "freeze zones" can be implemented.

But to work it requires the commitment of President Assad's forces, and agreement among all the rebel forces operating on the ground.

Russia is hoping to host a meeting end of this month between the Syrian government and some elements of the opposition. However, it is a move which critics see as filling time while delivering nothing.

Meanwhile, ordinary Syrians have long lost strength, faith, and hope. Their goal has become acquiring a visa to Europe or embarking on perilous boat-crossing.