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Analysis: In peace talks, Syria's President Assad plays for time

By Zeina Karam

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 11 2014 12:21 p.m. MST

In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad, hold up his portraits as they march during a demonstration is solidarity with government forces, in al-Inshaat neighborhood of Homs, Syria, Wednesday Feb. 11, 2014. Meanwhile the Syrian government on Tuesday allowed over a hundred men of fighting age to leave rebel-held areas of the besieged city of Homs after they were questioned and cleared of rebel links, state media said.

SANA, Associated Press

GENEVA — Even as he fights to hold on to power, Syrian President Bashar Assad has agreed to destroy a significant part of his arsenal and to join negotiations whose stated aim is to remove him from his post.

Those seemingly contradictory moves may point to a shrewd strategy: negotiate, play for time and hold the West at bay while his troops wear down an increasingly divided and dysfunctional rebel force on the battlefield no matter the cost.

So far the strategy has been working.

Since peace talks began in Switzerland on Jan. 24, Assad's forces have stepped up the pace of aerial bombardment against opposition-held areas and increased attacks in the north and around Damascus. Opposition groups say nearly 1,900 people were killed during the first week of talks last month — including more than 800 in the northern city of Aleppo alone by dozens of crude helicopter-dropped "barrel bombs." Some 220 others died in fighting between Islamic extremists and other rebels.

In addition, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has documented 2,454 deaths so far in February, making it likely to be one of the deadliest months so far in the Syrian civil war.

"You want to negotiate from a strong position. You want to show exactly how immune you are internationally. And I think nothing says that more than conducting attacks during peace talks. It creates an impression of non-vulnerability," said Firas Abi Ali, an analyst with the think tank IHS Jane's.

For Assad, protracted, U.N.-brokered peace talks are a chance to engage with the international community — much of which shunned him soon after the uprising began in March 2011. Peace negotiations sponsored by the U.S. and Russia offer Assad a means to claim relevance — just as the deal last year to destroy his chemical weapons to avoid U.S. military strikes helped bolster his standing.

That agreement, brokered by Moscow, called for destruction of Syria's chemical arsenal by mid-2014 and took armed U.S. intervention off the table. Assad signed on, but has already missed several deadlines with no consequences.

"The Syrian regime which pretends it is coming to Geneva kicking and screaming in fact loves nothing more than a process because it can claim that it's the only side with which the world can negotiate," said Rime Allaf, a political commentator who specializes in Middle East affairs.

The talks' objective is finding a political solution to a three-year-old conflict which has killed more than 130,000 people and displaced millions from their homes. The Syrian war has fanned regional sectarian hatreds, attracted thousands of jihadi foreign fighters and extremists and destabilized neighboring countries like Lebanon and Iraq.

But the two sides have been unable to agree even on an agenda. The opposition — backed by the U.S. — wants the talks to focus on establishing a transitional governing body that excludes Assad. That's a non-starter for the government which has not budged from its demand that halting "terrorism" must be the priority.

For negotiations to have any hope of success, analysts believe they must reflect the reality on the ground. Assad has little incentive to give major concessions when his forces still hold 13 of 14 provincial cities and continue to make slow but steady headway against arms-strapped rebels in Homs, Aleppo and around his seat of power Damascus. The rebels are more fractured than ever, bogged down in infighting against an al-Qaida splinter group.

More importantly, Assad can still count on the unwavering support of strong allies Russia and Iran.

"Assad still thinks he can regain control of Syria even after all these events," Allaf said.

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