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May 22, 2013

Syrian Troops Show Strength Ahead of Peace Talks

by Elizabeth Arrott

The Syrian government says it has made significant progress in recapturing territory from opposition forces, even as it apparently prepares to take part in planned peace talks next month.

The government offensive against the former rebel stronghold Qusair comes ahead of a peace conference next month aimed at bringing both sides in the conflict to the negotiating table.

Some observers believe the two events are related.

"I think the negotiation has started. What we witnessed in al Qusair and other areas is part of the negotiation by fire," said Oraib Al-Rantawi, the director of Amman's Al Quds Center. 

The seemingly rapid setback for rebel forces in the key city, a gateway for the government to push farther north and east, challenges an assumption that the collapse of President Bashar al-Assad's government is imminent - or even inevitable.

Al-Rantawi believes the rebels can regroup.  But he said their position at the negotiating table has been weakened just as they believe they might be getting greater material help from abroad.

"The regime succeeded to send -- and its allies, of course -- to send a message that if you want to put an end to this conflict by military means you have to go through a very painful, very long, very costly process and there is no guarantee you will win," Al-Rantawi said.

Yet some in the opposition have already dismissed the idea of sitting down with the government -- demanding President Assad step down as a condition for talks.  Few are also pinning hopes on their "Friends of Syria" allies, meeting in Amman this week.

Even as the conflict has dragged in regional and international powers on both sides, rebels remain suspicious of the motives of those organizing the conference, including the United States, which has called for Assad's ouster.

Salem al Falahat, head of the Alumma Studies Center in Amman, argues the world is not serious about confronting “Assad's arrogance.”  The conference, he said, is “nothing but a way to let the situation continue."  

Many Syrians are likely to agree, as the war grinds on into its third year -- with more than 70,000 people already having been killed.  Al-Rantawi believes stability rather than politics is their key concern.

"Four million Syrians now have no place to live.  This is the priority of the Syrian people.  I don't believe or even listen to all these lies made by the regime or by the opposition groups," he said.

As the competing interests meet next month to see if a political solution can be had, the voice of millions of Syrians caught up in the conflict may struggle to be heard.