Middle East

Syria conflict: Neither side is backing down

statue of Hafez al-Assad after being torn down in Raqqa, Syria
Image caption Rebels are still trying to destroy the system built by President Assad's father

Two years ago, the town of Deraa in southern Syria was convulsed by a series of angry, but peaceful demonstrations. The regime of President Bashar al-Assad answered them with force.

Far from being crushed, the movement spread, and as more protesters died it became an armed insurgency.

Now it is a civil war, and it is destroying Syria.

Casualty figures are rising, fast. The UK's Department for International Development points out that since the start of this year more people have been killed than in the entire first year of the conflict.

The exodus of Syrians is also speeding up. More than one million are refugees. The strain of absorbing them, and periodic border clashes, risk destabilising Syria's neighbours. Worst case scenarios include a regional war.

Britain, France and the United States are getting closer to supporting the rebels with weapons and military training. But it's a risky strategy which could make matters worse, not better.

Assad's view

The view from the president's palace in Damascus is not as bad as foreigners might imagine, and many rebels would like.

Britain estimates that his main allies Iran and Russia have increased their levels of military and financial support to the regime since late last year.

The belief that President Assad's men are getting a sharper military edge over the armed opposition is one of the reasons why Britain and France are pressing their European Union partners to lift their arms embargo to Syria.

At the beginning of the uprising two years ago the Assad regime blamed a conspiracy by foreign elements, including al-Qaeda.

Since the protests turned into a civil war, foreign jihadists in small but significant numbers have entered Syria to join the fight against it.

They are effective fighters, but paradoxically the president might take some comfort from their presence.

Mr Assad could be sensing he is scoring points in the West - as he has in Russia - with his argument that, if he goes, Syria's future could be dominated by Sunni Muslim extremists.

Rebel view

Image caption Salim Idriss, head of the Supreme Military Council, is battling for influence with foreign jihadists

The men who have picked up arms to fight the regime share a desire to get rid of President Assad and to destroy his regime.

But they are still weakened by a lack of unity and, along with the expatriate political opposition, they have not managed to come up with an agreed and convincing vision for the future of the country.

The West's hopes lie with the Supreme Military Council, which is headed by General Salim Idriss.

The prospect of aid, both military and "non-lethal", gives the West some leverage. Diplomatic sources say they want to change the military culture in rebel groups, to produce fighters who respect the laws of war and human rights.

Inside Syria, jihadists have been at the centre of much of the recent fighting. The best known is Jabhat al-Nusra (the Nusra Front), which the US has designated as a terror group affiliated to al-Qaeda.

Other less well known groups contain foreign jihadists, and are generally regarded as more extreme.

Foreign jihadists have relocated to Syria from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.

Foreign view

So far diplomacy has failed, which is another reason why Britain and France want an end to the EU arms embargo.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia are already supplying weapons. The US, Britain and France seem to be preparing the ground to do the same.

Image caption Months of heavy fighting have left entire neighbourhoods destroyed

Britain and France say they want to even up the military balance of power to open a space for a political solution that does not involve the Assads, but avoids a collapse of the state in the way that spread chaos in Libya and Iraq.

That doesn't square with the rebels I have met in Syria, who always say they want to kill Bashar al-Assad and destroy the system built by his father.

Some of the money provided by Qatar and Saudi Arabia is said by the regime - and others - to be going to jihadist fighters.

The two Gulf states see ousting President Assad as a sectarian as well as a strategic matter.

For the Saudis it would also be a way of dealing a blow to the regime's Iranian allies.

President Assad would not have survived the last two years without the financial, military and diplomatic support he has had from Iran and Russia.

Inside Syria both President Assad and the armed rebels seem to believe that they can win a military victory.

Going into the third year of the conflict it is not the regime versus all the Syrian people. If it was, President Assad would most likely be dead or retired by now.

Both sides have their core supporters. In between the rebels and the regime, though, is a big middle ground of frightened Syrians who don't like the regime, but worry what the rebels, especially the jihadists, have in store for them.

They look at the way in which the war is destroying the country, appalled that no-one seems able to stop the destruction of their country, their futures, and sometimes their lives.