Viewpoint: Syria set for drawn-out conflict

By Fawaz A Gerges
Middle East analyst

image captionThe number of Syrians fleeing the violence has dramatically increased in recent months

As violence spreads to almost every corner of Syria, there is no longer any doubt that the country is engulfed in all-out war.

In August alone, more than 3,000 Syrians were reported killed.

The death toll from the massacre in Darayya - more than 400 dead over two days according to some reports - is not only a reflection of the increasing number of Syrians being killed on a daily basis, but also a sign of the heightened brutality and meteoric escalation of the raging civil war.

Another indicator that the Syrian conflict has spiralled out of control is the flood of Syrian refugees inside and outside the country.

The UN estimates that more than 170,000 refugees have already sought sanctuary in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq - a number that has increased rapidly over the past week.

Speaking to reporters in Geneva, an UNHCR spokesperson said that the number of refugees escaping to Turkey had risen to 5,000 a day from 400 or 500 daily few weeks ago.

The number of refugees crossing into Jordan rose to 10,200 over past week from 4,500 the previous week. The Syrian refugees fleeing are on top of the 1.2 million Syrians who have fled their homes, but remain within the country.

Military spread thin

It is a tug of war with no foreseeable end: despite temporary gains made by the government and the opposition in different parts of the country, neither side can deliver a knockout blow.

Far from the beginning of the end, the Syrian struggle will most likely be a long, drawn-out conflict. No-one knows how long it will last and what will be the consequences for the war-torn country and its neighbours.

image captionPresident Assad has said he "needs time" to bring the conflict to a "decisive end"

The armed wing of the opposition has managed to strike at the heart of the Assad regime, yet it does not seem to possess the capabilities and means to consolidate its gains.

Despite efforts at unifying its ranks, the opposition remains operationally and ideologically fragmented with dozens of armed factions waging their own battles. Adding another dimension are the Islamists whose increasing numbers and tactics alarm both Syrians and outsiders.

The Assad regime, despite massive firepower at its disposal, is overextended and feels the pinch as fighting spreads geographically. Its core forces are strained and spread thin, unable to crush the rebels who have become more effective, better organised, armed and skilled.

The battle of Aleppo is a clear example of this impasse: after more than four weeks of the authorities' attempts to "cleanse" the city, thousands of rebels remain entrenched in many of the largest Syrian city's neighbourhoods.

President Assad conceded that there is military stalemate during an interview with privately-owned Dunya television, saying: "I can sum up all this explanation in one sentence: We are moving forward. The situation is practically better but it has not been decided yet. That takes time."

Whether Assad's days are numbered is irrelevant.

The more critical question is why has the Assad regime, which could easily outlast its figurehead, proven to be more resilient and cohesive than the received wisdom in Western capitals?

Cultivated loyalty

image captionThe opposition Free Syrian Army is operationally and ideologically fragmented

There are several reasons. Most importantly, the durability of the Assad rule has depended not only on coercion and domination but also on political hegemony, co-option and the balancing of various interest and communal groups.

Both the father and the son cultivated relations with Sunni, Christian, and Druze businessmen and promoted financial and business networks, especially in Damascus and Aleppo, Syria's centres of political and economic life and home to more than one-third of the country's 23 million people.

The Assad regime is resilient because of the loyalty it has cultivated among its upper echelon over the past 40 years.

This is not a loyalty based solely on Alawite identity, nor on money alone, influence and exclusivity that has benefited regime cronies from all sects.

It has also benefited from the existential cohesiveness of minorities and communities who signed on to a regime that has successfully branded itself as a protector. As the fighting spreads and loyalties harden, the fear among these core supporters that they will be slaughtered and executed is real.

It is a deadly game of survival, and many have chosen to cling to what they know.

Accentuating the deadlock between the regime and the armed opposition is interference by outside powers that have turned Syria into a war by proxy.

On the one hand, there are Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar which back the opposition with arms and money, while on the other is Iran. Iran provides pivotal support to the Assad regime and has made it clear that it will not allow its ouster by force.

"Iran will not allow the axis of resistance, of which it considers Syria to be an essential part, to be broken in any way," Saeed Jalili, Iran's security chief told President Assad in a visit to Damascus earlier this month.

Despite the heated rhetoric of Western powers, they have resigned themselves to the fact that little can be done to bring about an immediate end to the Syrian conflict.

With the exception of the lone voice of French President Francois Hollande who - perhaps motivated by domestic politics - called for the Syrian opposition to form a provisional government which his administration would recognise, the United States and its Western allies do not have the political will and desire to intervene militarily in the war-torn country.

Ironically, the US State Department scoffed at Mr Hollande's suggestion as premature.

'Every inch of soil'

Given this lack of co-ordination, not to mention that Russia would fiercely oppose the establishment of military safe zones in Syria, it is unlikely there will be a repeat of the Libyan scenario.

image captionMost of those killed and wounded in the conflict have been civilians

As Syria descends into all-out war with no end in sight, more voices in the region have begun to call for a political solution, for the two warring camps to negotiate a way out of their deadly embrace.

"The situation in Syria," said Nabil al-Arabi, Secretary General of the Arab League, last week, "is going from bad to worse... Imagine the situation where one Syrian gets killed, then consider the hundreds we can't see."

And Lakhdar Brahimi, Kofi Annan's replacement as envoy to Syria, is also solution-seeking: "We have got to try," he said. "We have got to see that the Syrian people are not abandoned."

Iran and Egypt have also proposed initiatives to resolve the conflict.

Unfortunately, the odds are against a political solution because both camps view the struggle as existential and have hunkered down for the long haul.

The opposition has repeatedly said it will not negotiate with the Assad regime unless Assad first steps down, which is unlikely.

As Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem told Robert Fisk of the Independent: "We are fighting armed groups inside Aleppo, in the Damascus suburbs, before that in Homs and Idlib and this means fighting within Syrian cities - and our responsibility is to protect our people."

This followed news of military helicopters dropping leaflets, warning the rebels that they would "cleanse every inch of Syrian soil" and they must surrender their weapons or face death.

If history serves as a guide, civil wars come to an end when either one faction strikes a decisive blow or combatants get exhausted.

In the Syrian case, neither condition is conceivable any time soon. In the meantime, the Syrian people, whatever their loyalties, will continue to suffer.

Fawaz A Gerges is a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics where he directs the Middle East Centre. His book "Obama and the Middle East: The End of America's Moment?" has just been released.