As it advances on rebel forces in Aleppo, Syrian government looking more upbeat

Walid Moallem, Syria’s foreign minister, is known both for his ability to almost lazily parry a deluge of questions as well as his trademark languid pace of delivery.

But in a recent meeting in Damascus with a roomful of journalists and analysts, he seemed even more relaxed than usual and began by posing a question, smiling as he delivered each word.

“I will open my first question to you,” Moallem said.

“Who can tell me, why this hysteria in the West because of Aleppo?”

In the past month, pro-government troops have launched a ground invasion to retake the rebel-held enclave in Aleppo, a city divided between the state and the rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad.

As Assad’s forces have punched through front lines stalemated since 2013, the offensive on the oppositions’ districts — home to an estimated 250,000 people and blockaded since last summer — has brought worldwide condemnation from Western governments and aid groups.

But Moallem was unperturbed.

Instead, his opening gambit in the hourlong interview showed that the foreign minister, like other officials interviewed in a rare reporting trip to Syria, displayed the growing belief that the government’s worst days are behind it.

The visit to the capital, organized by the British Syrian Society, showed a state more assured than ever it will emerge victorious in the almost six-year Syrian civil war, a conflict where the dead number in the hundreds of thousands and which has transformed the country into a post-apocalyptic gallery of destruction.

Damascus’ resurgence of confidence comes more than a year after its nadir. In July 2015, Assad admitted his forces were too overstretched after a string of spectacular advances by the rebels fighting to topple him. But Russia’s entry into the war last September tipped the scales in the government’s favor.

Moallem dismissed any chance Assad would leave before the end of his term, a top demand by the opposition that has branded him a war criminal. 

Damascus also remains adamant that Western nations hoping Assad would set down will have to engage with his government.

“If we succeed in winning Aleppo again, and I’m sure we will, it’s up to the West … to rethink about [sic] their policies,” continued Moallem with a heavy sigh.

“And it’s not bad if somebody is mistaken to review his mistakes.”

Bouthaina Shaaban, Assad’s political and media adviser, agreed. She blamed the repeated breakdown of peace negotiations, held under the auspices of the U.N. in years past in the Swiss city of Geneva, on the opposition and its international backers, which include Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, France and the U.S.

“It is the Syrian government who has been absolutely ready to participate in any negotiation and dialogue, and it is the other side that didn’t come to the negotiations or wasn’t allowed,” Shaaban said.

Previous iterations of the Geneva talks had faltered because of what critics said was the government’s insistence on combating “terrorists,” the blanket term Damascus uses to describe the rebels, even as peace talks were continuing.

The opposition, which formed an umbrella group under Saudi custodianship, refused to begin negotiations unless the government engaged in a number of confidence-building measures, including the lifting of sieges and a cessation of hostilities.

Shaaban asked whether any Western country would “accept a political opposition that uses force and who kills … to change the system.”

She added that the government “doesn’t need to negotiate” with the opposition in exile. Instead, it would rely on local reconciliation agreements.

“We are going with negotiations, reconciliations and clemencies because we want to stop bloodshed in the country.”

Damascus recently has forged a spate of amnesty agreements in rebel-held areas. Rebels who lay down their arms can return “to the embrace of the nation,” according to the government, and reintegrate into civilian life. Those who have not completed their military service, according to interviews in local media outlets with rebels who had reconciled, either can return to the army or join a citizen’s militia in their own area.

Opposition leaders, however, insist that the amnesties are forced on besieged populations who had a grim choice: surrender to the government or face starvation. Even those who do accept the government’s offer, they say, face reprisals or end up “disappeared.”

Russia’s military might, in the form of warplanes and special forces operatives, had powered the government’s advance on Aleppo and other rebel-held areas, but the government also has been aided by thousands of Shiite irregulars from Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. The government has secured its core areas in the country’s west, sidelined rebel fighters in the south and kept Islamic State at bay in the east.

It has cobbled together a sense of normalcy in some areas under its control, especially in the seat of power in Damascus, even while opposition areas a stone’s throw away remain under siege and rocked by ferocious airstrikes.

Internationally, Damascus enjoys the unflinching support of Iran, Russia and China, and even some of Syria’s regional neighbors have reengaged with the government.

On Thursday, the Lebanese pro-Assad daily Assafir reported that Egyptian military personnel have deployed in Syria to join in combat operations alongside the Syrian army.

Two days earlier, in an interview with Portuguese broadcaster RTP, Egyptian President Abdul Fattah Sisi said his priority “is to support national armies, for example in … Syria and Iraq,” according to a report by the AFP.

“Our stance in Egypt is to respect the will of the Syrian people, and that a political solution to the Syrian crisis is the most suitable way, and to seriously deal with terrorist groups and disarm them,” he said.

That position also has extended to Assad. President-elect Donald Trump appears poised to scrap support programs for the rebels. Both he and Assad have expressed interest in subsequent interviews in working together against Islamic State.

Conversely, in recent years the U.S. and other countries have imposed sanctions on Assad and many of his people, including Moallem and Shaaban.

Other Western nations and human rights groups have excoriated Assad’s government for holding thousands of people as detainees and for using airstrikes and indiscriminate weapons against civilian populations in rebel areas. They also have derided as a sham the 2014 election, which handed Assad a third term.

Moallem brushed these criticisms aside. “We have a president elected … for seven years in office. … He was elected, and he has to continue his office.” Moallem said.

Shaaban, meanwhile said Assad’s “steadfastness and belief in his country has made an extremely positive impact on the morale of the Syrian people.” 

She added that “if you go into the streets now, you’ll find him more loved and respected than when the crisis began.”

Bulos is a special correspondent.

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