As the Syrian Civil War draws to the end of its fourth lethal year, Panos photographer Teun Voeten and Dutch journalist Robert Dulmers made their way to Syria, taking the official, government sanctioned route and travelling with the Syrian Army. Having visited once before, in January 2014, they found a government defiant in the face of multiple insurgencies and a sense of optimism among the army, encouraged by the new focus on Islamic State (IS) and other Islamist militia who are now being fought by Syria's Kurds in places like Kobane and by an American led coalition that has sent its fighter jets into the skies above IS controlled Syria. More than any superficial assessments of the waxing and waning fortunes of either of the many forces now fighting in the country however, the two journalists found one thing right across the country - utter devastation. From Damascus, the embattled capital where mortar and anti-aircraft fire rings out every night and entire suburbs of this city of 1.7 million are controlled by insurgents, to the smouldering remains of what was once Homs, the city where the revolution began in 2011, Syria is being torn apart by countless opposing forces, each with their own benefactor abroad, supplying weapons, money and, as is the case with the Islamic State, pumped up fighters ready to give their lives to the cause.
Voeten and Dulmers encounter a young soldier in Damascus who tells them that the front lines in this most intractable of conflicts haven't moved for months. 'Our only trump card now is airstrikes' he tells them reassuringly. On the road to Aleppo, the country's once bustling second city, they meet a group of soldiers whose job it is to clear mines which are nightly being laid by IS and other Islamists from a stretch of road to keep communications between the two cities open. In Aleppo itself they are assigned a young woman called Lama, from the local secret service who doesn't speak English but insists on following them where ever they go.
Wanting to go as close as is safely feasible to Raqqa, the stronghold of IS in Syria's East, they travel along a deserted highway through a parched landscape with village after village lying in ruins, flattened by airstrikes or ground fighting. At one of the last checkpoints before the no-man's-land between government forces and IS an army general tells them nonchalantly that 'We don't take prisoners. We Kill them immediately…. We shoot them on the spot and shove them into the ground with bulldozers.' For the time being, however, IS rules supreme in its recently established 'Caliphate'.
Back in Aleppo, in conversation with Marwan Olabi, the governor of Aleppo, they try to draw him on the widely reported use of barrel bombs - oil drums filled with explosives and junk metal - which the Syrian government has always denied. 'Any state has the right to use its power when it is at war with gangsters' he replies with a smile.
In the birthplace of the revolution, Homs, the effects of the government's most radical approach to fighting its enemies can be seen.
The city was besieged for three years and three days and bombarded continually, starving the holed-up rebels of food and ammunition and leading to the almost complete destruction of much of the city. Now what's left of Syria's third city is back under government control, though few people have come back to live here.
On 26 January 2015, another peace conference launched in Moscow following the failure of the last conference in Switzerland in 2014. Many of the main opposition representatives have decided to stay away, incensed by the idea that the country which is hosting the conference has also been one of the strongest backers of the Assad Regime which they are trying to remove. Those opposition figures which have decided to attend are being viewed as traitors by those boycotting and to many observers, President Assad now appears like the lesser evil to the religious fanatics of Islamic State.
A full text by Robert Dulmers is available on request.