Syria war enters fourth year, regime eyes victory

Syria war enters fourth year, regime eyes victory
The conflict in Syria has cost more than 140,000 lives and displaced nearly half of Syria's population, many of them now refugees.

BEIRUT, Lebanon - As Syria's conflict enters its fourth year, ravaging the country and creating a massive humanitarian crisis, President Bashar al-Assad's regime is on the offensive to regain territory from a divided opposition.

Diplomatic efforts by Russia and the United States are all but on hold with the two powers now divided over the crisis in Ukraine, while the fighting continues on the ground in Syria.

"Without Western intervention, the war will continue for many years more and such an intervention is very unlikely while (US President Barack) Obama is in the White House," said Thomas Pierret, a Syria specialist at the University of Edinburgh.

"Things could change after 2016", after elections to choose Obama's successor, he said.

For now, neither side seems to have the means to win decisively a conflict that has cost more than 140,000 lives and displaced nearly half of Syria's population, many of them now refugees.

The conflict began in March 2011, with peaceful anti-government protests that were brutally repressed.

The opposition took up arms, and the insurrection developed into a full-blown war by February 2012 with the regime's bombardment of central Homs.

After watching its territory shrink, the regime launched a counter-offensive in the spring of last year, shored up by Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite fighters trained by Iran's Revolutionary Guards.

It was bolstered by having avoided threatened Western military action in the wake of a deadly chemical weapons attack in August 2013 that activists blamed on the government.

And its strategy now has become to protect "useful Syria": The coast, the major towns of the north and south and key roads.

The opposition now controls more territory than the regime, but the regime controls the more densely populated regions of the country.

It is advancing on three fronts, south of the capital Damascus, in the strategic Qalamun region near the Lebanese border, and in the city of Aleppo in the country's north.

Near the capital, it has negotiated limited ceasefires with neighbourhoods under army sieges, where populations have suffered from dwindling food and medical supplies.

In Qalamun, after a string of victories last year it has encircled Yabrud, the last rebel stronghold in the region.

And in Aleppo, it has retained its grip on the western side of the city, while advancing around the outskirts of the rebel-held east as well as securing and reopening the nearby airport.

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