Military buildup, fighting spells end of Syrian cease-fire

BEIRUT — A military buildup in northern Syria, coupled with heavy fighting and mounting civilian casualties, spells the end of a cease-fire that for two months brought some relief to a war-weary country. The renewed violence is ushering in what could be an even more ruinous chapter in the 5-year-old conflict.

About 200 civilians have been killed in the past week, nearly half of them around Aleppo. There has even been shelling in Damascus, along with a car bomb — both rarities for the capital.

With peace talks in Geneva completely deadlocked, Syrians are regarding the escalating bloodshed with dread, fearing a return to full war and slow destruction.

“There are regime attempts to advance and preparations by (rebel) forces to advance in the other direction. But the truth is that both sides have no capacity to advance,” said activist Ahmad al-Ahmad, who lives in opposition-held areas outside Hama. “It is attrition, except for the planes, which can target civilians.”

Aleppo is likely to be the focus of the next phase of the war, with both sides preparing for a major battle, according to senior rebel leaders and opposition activists who spokes to The Associated Press.

Government forces have been mobilizing soldiers, equipment and ammunition in preparation for a military action in Aleppo, said Maj. Jamil Saleh, leader of Tajammu Alezzah, a Free Syrian Army faction that has received U.S.-delivered TOW anti-tank missiles.

He said his group, which operates primarily in Hama and Latakia, has sent troops to Aleppo to help the rebels ward off government advances. He described the airstrikes and artillery shelling in the former commercial capital for the last week as “preparatory” work for a major campaign.

Opposition activists also said a substantial redeployment of personnel has taken place recently, as contingents of the Syrian army and allied militias have moved from Palmyra to the vicinity of Aleppo.

“The cease-fire was a cover, because the regime never committed to it since the start of the cease-fire,” Saleh said in a telephone interview from Syria.

Nazeer al-Khatib, an activist who lives on the outskirts of Aleppo, said the city is being choked off by fighting. Government and allied forces are moving in on the main highway to rebel-held areas, blocking the only access to the rest of the country, he said.

Aleppo residents already are moving out of Syria’s largest city to rural areas to evade violence, but also out of fear of getting trapped amid shortages of food and rising prices.

The city was the focus of government efforts that succeeded in almost completely choking off rebels holed up in some neighborhoods before the U.S. and Russia engineered the cease-fire on Feb. 27.

The truce held surprisingly well for weeks, underlining the exhaustion on all sides. Formally called a “cessation of hostilities,” it was never meant to be complete because it excluded extremists such as the Islamic State group and its rival al-Qaida branch, the Nusra Front. The presence of Nusra in almost every contested area has allowed the Syrian army and its Russian allies to target opposition-held areas while also claiming not to have technically violated the cease-fire.

That has allowed the truce to gradually unravel, with both sides accusing each other of incremental violations, mainly in the crucial Aleppo area where all sides are trying to expand their presence.

Any move to cut off Aleppo completely and end resistance in the city is likely to be a costly and extended affair, resulting in mass casualties and more refugees fleeing the country. There is talk that Saudi Arabia and Turkey, key backers of the rebels, may renew weapons shipments as the peace talks flounder.

Firas Abi Ali, principal analyst at IHS Country Risk, said an offensive on Aleppo also risks a reunification of the Syrian opposition around groups such as Nusra. He said it also increases the likelihood of cooperation between Nusra and the Islamic State group to capture towns south of Aleppo that are crucial to supplying government forces.

The ground movements suggest that forces loyal to President Bashar Assad, which have been on the ascendancy thanks to unwavering Russian and Iranian support, are likely to try to win back Aleppo.

“The fighting is about to get worse,” said Hilal Khashan, political science professor at the American University of Beirut. “I think we will see an escalation before serious (peace) talks begin.”

Russia’s six-month air campaign allowed Assad’s forces to advance in key areas against the rebels, and the recapture of Palmyra from IS militants has won his forces praise, including from the head of the United Nations.

With Washington caught up in a presidential election, the U.S is inclined to pay even less attention to Syria, and its focus is squarely on the war with IS. This week, President Barack Obama said an additional 250 military personnel would be deployed to Syria to train and advise local units to eventually dislodge IS from its de facto capital of Raqqa.

The opposition backed out of the Geneva talks last week, saying the government had repeatedly violated the cease-fire. U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura met with the Syrian government delegation Tuesday, and the latest round of talks was due to conclude Wednesday.

Khashan described the peace talks as “an exercise in stonewalling.”

“We know that the masters of that military and political play in Syria right now are the Russians, and it seems … the Americans have acquiesced, too, since they are not really intent on playing a key role in the Syrian conflict,” he said.

Rami Abdurrahman, director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which closely monitors the conflict, said he believes the cease-fire has collapsed in all parts of Syria. He predicted the conflict will continue as a “war of attrition,” with no real winner.

“There will either be a political solution for Syria, or the destruction of what remains,” he said.

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