Efforts to find a political solution to the Syrian civil war resume this week as representatives and ministers from 85 countries gather in Brussels for a two-day conference Tuesday, co-chaired by the United Nations and the European Union.
Its stated aim is to mobilize humanitarian aid to Syrians inside the country and boost support for the U.N.-led Geneva peace process. However, with Syrian government forces — backed by their Russian allies — seemingly determined to try to secure a military victory, hopes for a diplomatic breakthrough in Brussels are low.
Syrian jets continued to pound opposition targets in southern Damascus Monday. The Hajr al-Aswad neighborhood and the nearby Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp are the last pockets of the capital held by Islamic State fighters and other militant groups.
The districts are also home to thousands of civilians. Spokesperson for the United Nations’ agency for Palestinian refugees Chris Gunness described conditions in the Yarmouk camp as "akin to hell."
“We are seeing intense clashes on the ground, we're seeing fire power from the air as well, so of course even in their homes people are unsafe. In addition there is absolutely no public infrastructure. The last remaining hospital in Yarmouk camp has become completely non-functional,” Gunness said Monday.
Seven years since the first protests erupted in Syrian towns and cities against the government of Bashar al-Assad, there is no sign of an end to the civil war that has killed an estimated 400,000 people and forced 12 million from their homes.
The Brussels conference is titled "Supporting the future of Syria and the region," and is the latest effort to kick-start peace talks following the stalled U.N. negotiations in Geneva, and the Astana and Sochi rounds of talks brokered by Russia.
“It’s the first huge international event that gathers different players that are, let’s say, on different sides in this war. And the EU-U.N. co-chairmanship is obviously an excellent opportunity to try and build a path towards a political solution,” the EU Foreign Affairs Chief Federica Mogherini said last week ahead of the Brussels conference.
The EU and the U.N. insist there can be no military solution. But expectations are low that the conference can kick start a peace deal, says analyst Lina Khatib of London’s Chatham House.
“Unfortunately with no political will in Washington, any EU conference on Syria is only going to be able to deal with the symptoms of the conflict, not the drivers of the conflict. Nor will it bring the conflict to an end,” she said.
Syrian forces — and their Russian backers — appear undeterred by the recent U.S., French and British air strikes on alleged chemical weapons facilities. Western allies should use the continued threat of force to leverage Moscow, argues Khatib.
“As the Geneva process has shown, the U.N. itself is not able to push Russia to take seriously the idea of a peace settlement for Syria. It is only the United States that can do that because the U.S. is the only super power in the world, the only entity that has the potential to exercise pressure on Russia,” Khatib told VOA in an interview Monday.
The United Nations Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura appeared more upbeat Sunday, following a weekend informal retreat for U.N. ambassadors in Sweden.
“In Syria we have had so many ups and downs… but there's a new attempt for a new start and I think that was clearly there,” De Mistura told reporters.
Progress towards any U.N.-brokered peace deal has been stalled by deep divides at the Security Council. Until those divisions are overcome, the route to a political solution in Syria remains far from clear.