Syria's war off the radar at UN assembly
NEW YORK - Syria's war has taken a new turn with the expected recapture of Raqa from the Islamic State, but world leaders gathered at the United Nations this week seem to be paying little attention.
Once the focal point of a myriad of high-powered meetings during the UN General Assembly, Syria this year dropped off the diplomatic agenda, dwarfed by the crises over North Korea and the Iran nuclear deal.
Last year, tensions were running high at the UN assembly, with Western powers locked in heated exchanges with Russia and Iran, the Syrian government's allies, over the offensive against rebel-held Aleppo.
Since then, President Bashar al-Assad's forces have retaken Aleppo and most of the opposition-held territory, backed by Moscow and Tehran.
The Islamic State (IS) group is close to defeat in its two remaining Syrian strongholds: Raqa and Deir Ezzor.
Russia, Iran and Turkey have set up four "de-escalation zones" in Syria and are working with the United States and Jordan in the south to bring about ceasefires that have eased the violence.
"The war in Syria is not over yet," European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini reminded foreign ministers at an EU-hosted meeting on Syria on Thursday.
But she acknowledged that "the situation on the ground has improved. Daesh (IS) has been driven out from its strongholds," and fighting has eased.
"For many Syrians, this makes the difference between life and death."
- France pushes contact group -
Now in its seventh year of war that has left 330,000 dead, Syria has become an extremely complex conflict, but diplomatic efforts remain low profile.
The Kurdish issue and Israel's growing involvement, fueled by fears that neighboring Syria will become a springboard for Iran, are shaping up as new crises, diplomats say.
"Nothing is resolved", said a European diplomat, who asked not to be named.
The country remains deeply divided -- some would call it a de-facto partition -- five million Syrians are still refugees and a new outbreak of fighting is still possible, he said.
During his address to the assembly, French President Emmanuel Macron called for the establishment of a new Syria "contact group" to push for a diplomatic solution.
Russia and the United States reacted coolly to the proposal.
The administration of President Donald Trump has yet to define its Syria strategy beyond fighting IS militants and is refusing to give Iran, a key player in the war, a seat at the table.
- Reconstruction aid -
"If the contact group had Iran in it, that would be difficult for us," a senior US official told AFP this week following a meeting between the United States and allies on Syria.
"The Americans have dropped out of the search for a political solution," said the European diplomat. "Their focus is solely military: defeating IS."
The United Nations is planning to convene a new round of peace talks in the coming weeks between Syria's government and the opposition, even though past negotiations have failed to yield more than incremental progress.
With the rebel fighting position weakened, the regime is under no pressure to make concessions during the upcoming Geneva talks.
The UN-brokered negotiations have hit a wall over opposition demands for a political transition paving the way for the end of Assad's rule.
The European Union, backed by France and Britain, is hoping that the promise of billions of dollars in reconstruction aid for Syria can be used as leverage to push for a settlement.
At a pledging conference in Brussels in April, countries offered $6 billion in aid to rebuild post-war Syria, but the European Union has made clear the money will not flow until there is a deal on a transition.
Some diplomats however say that shunning Syria because of Assad may become untenable over time.
At a meeting on humanitarian aid, the International Committee for the Red Cross reminded diplomats that more was at stake in Syria than Assad and urged them not to forget the thousands of prisoners and missing persons.