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7 years on, Syria war shifting gears but still deadly


A wounded Syrian man waits to receive treatment at a makeshift hospital following regime bombardment in Kafr Batna in the opposition-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta on March 13th. [Ammar Suleiman/AFP]

A wounded Syrian man waits to receive treatment at a makeshift hospital following regime bombardment in Kafr Batna in the opposition-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta on March 13th. [Ammar Suleiman/AFP]

Syria enters its eighth year of war on Thursday (March 15th), largely rid of the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS), but torn apart by an international power struggle as the regime presses its blistering reconquest.

The conflict that started on March 15th, 2011 as the government of President Bashar al-Assad cracked down on mostly peaceful protests is raging on relentlessly and getting more complex.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, nearly 354,000 people have been killed in seven years. More than half of Syria's pre-war population of 20 million has been displaced.

Al-Assad, once on the brink of losing the office he has held since 2000, was bolstered by Russia's 2015 military intervention and is seeing an unlikely recovery, with the regime now in control of more than half of the territory.

The regime's latest operation to retake the ground it lost in the early stages of the war is being conducted in Eastern Ghouta, at the gates of Damascus.

Regime and allied forces have waged an intense air and ground offensive on the opposition enclave, killing more than 1,100 civilians -- a fifth of them children -- in an assault whose ferocity has shocked the world.

Deadly barrel bombs and suspected chemical munitions have been dropped on civilian areas, reducing entire towns to ruins.

'Scramble for Syria'

The past few months have seen the death of ISIS's so-called state, an extremist experiment that temporarily gave rival forces a shared goal.

ISIS was gradually defeated by myriad forces, and 2017 saw the final collapse of its control in the areas it had seized. Though the group still has a few fighters hunkering down in desert hideouts, its territorial ambitions have been dashed.

"It is very difficult for ISIS to get its feet back on the ground," said Joshua Landis, director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, warning that extremists retain the ability to carry out attacks.

As they invested forces and equipment in the war on ISIS and other extremists, world powers also were staking their claim to increased influence in the region.

After foreign militaries finished wresting back one ISIS bastion after another, parts of Syria that had seen a relative lull in fighting became the focus once again.

"What we are seeing is the scramble for Syria right now," Landis said.

"The main trend is going to be the division of Syria" into three blocs, he said, with the lion's share going to the regime, which is backed by Russia and Iran.

Faltering talks

Coalition-backed Arab and Kurd forces hold territory in north-eastern Syria covering 30% of the country, and an assortment of Turkey-backed opposition fighters are carving a third haven in the north-west.

"Turkish and American influence on the ground, inside of Syria, will continue to spread," predicted Nicholas Heras of the Centre for New American Security.

"In this way, 2018 will continue the trend of consolidating Syria into zones of control, even as [regime] forces make gains in some areas," he said.

The regime is now bent on breaking any resistance in Eastern Ghouta, which lies on the capital's doorstep, within mortar range of key institutions.

Syrian analyst Fabrice Balanche predicted that the opposition enclave will not hold out very long and that evacuation deals will be reached.

"For the regime, 2018 is the year it fully retakes Damascus and its agglomeration," said Balanche, a visiting fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

UN-sponsored talks in Geneva as well as Russian-brokered negotiations in Sochi have failed to raise any credible prospect of a political solution to the conflict.

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