Syria's protracted conflict shows no sign of abating

By Paul Danahar
BBC Middle East bureau chief, Damascus

  • Published
Members of Free Syrian Army patrol Qusayr, near Homs, on 10 May 2012
Image caption,
The Free Syrian Army has not yet shown itself to be a cohesive force

Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once said that in a guerrilla war the rebels only had to not lose to win; however, unless a regular army was clearly winning, it was losing. The Syrian crisis has, for the time being, turned that maxim on its head.

When the uprising began, the West and its allies in the Gulf expected it to last weeks or maybe months - but not years.

Now, by hanging on this long, the regime in Damascus increasingly thinks that by not losing it is winning.

That new confidence - along with what is believed to be a steady supply of arms from its supporters in Iran and Russia - is helping the regime to take back some areas which it had previously lost.

In the capital Damascus, you can hear the sound of mortar fire as the regime slowly pushes fighters from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) out of the parts of the city that it took the rebels months to get hold of.

The situation in Syria is complicated. If you are not confused by what is going on there, then you do not understand it.

However, to try to make the crisis less confusing to the outside world, policymakers, politicians and journalists have tried to boil it down to good versus evil: the FSA versus President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

Image caption,
The emergence of radical Islamist groups has further complicated the conflict

And the regime has played its part - so far more than 70,000 people are believed to have died in the conflict.

But to start to understand why this crisis is so intractable, two things must first be understood.

'Men with guns'

Firstly, the FSA - that you have been hearing so much about - does not exist.

A better title would be MWG, or men with guns, because having guns and firing them in the same direction is the only thing that unites them.

The word "army" suggests a cohesive force with a command structure. Almost two years after the FSA was created, that remains illusive.

The situation has been further complicated by the introduction into the arena of al-Qaeda-linked jihadists and armed criminal gangs.

Secondly, the Syrian opposition's political leadership - which wanders around international capitals attending conferences and making grand speeches - is not leading anyone. It barely has control of the delegates in the room with it, let alone the fighters in the field.

These two things can help explain why this crisis has so far shown no sign of being resolved politically.

America is not acting because it does not know what to do or whom to do it with.

Neither do the European countries.

Having spent the last few days in Beirut and Damascus, talking to the international community, Western diplomats, FSA activists and Syrian regime supporters, it is clear that nobody knows how to end this crisis.

That's just about the only thing all sides agree on.

Saudi and Qatari 'meddling'

The vacuum created by Western inaction has been filled by two of the Gulf states - Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

These are both sorely undemocratic states, they are not champions of democracy either at home or abroad.

Image caption,
Qatar has viewed the upheavals of the Arab Spring as an opportunity to extend its influence

So, why in Syria did we have a "free world" standing by and watching the democratic uprising being brutally crushed, when suddenly from over the horizon came the cavalry from the very un-free Gulf world to arm and support the aspirations of the people?

This bit is simple - they did not.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar are meddling in Syria for thoroughly selfish reasons. Freedom, democracy and human rights have absolutely nothing to do with why they are arming the rebels.

President Assad's Alawite community is a splinter from the Shia faith - its closest allies are in Shia Iran.

Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia hates Shia Iran, so it is using the war in Syria to try and weaken it.

The Saudi interest in the conflict dates back 1,300 years to the split within Islam. That is where its ambitions over the outcome of the civil war begin and end.

Qatar is more complicated. Nobody really understands the minutiae of the Qatari foreign policy - perhaps not even the Qataris. Small nations like to feel important and they like to have bigger friends.

The Qataris are a tiny nation with lots of money. They are looking at the post-Arab Spring Middle East as a giant tombola, they are using their vast wealth to buy up as many of the lottery tickets on offer as possible because they just want to win something, somewhere.

They might end up with a prize that is nowhere near what they paid for it - but it will be theirs. It is the winning - not necessarily the quality of the prize - that counts.

Qatar wants to have lots of grateful friends once the turmoil in the region is over who will hopefully look after them in the future.

The only thing that is certain in Syria is who is losing: The Syrian people are losing. They are losing their lives, their homes, their wealth. Their children are losing their childhoods.

'Societal crisis'

The Syrians are also losing Syria, because the longer this goes on the more society is losing what little sense of identity it has.

"The country is moving from a political crisis to a societal crisis," is how one of the few genuinely knowledgeable people trying to manage this crisis explained events here to me.

This societal crisis is manifesting itself in steadily increasing small acts of sectarian violence.

Image caption,
The increasingly sectarian nature of the conflict is undermining Syrian society's sense of identity

All across the country, every day, there are brutal events, none of which in itself is big enough to warrant the attention of international or local media, but each of which breaks another strand of this country's fragile weave of sects and religions.

Each one is an act of revenge for an offence committed by another member of the victim's religious community.

Women are being raped because they are Sunni or Alawite and their men are assumed to be involved in the fighting.

Christian women are being hauled off buses and attacked by Salafist fighters for not covering their hair.

Murders lead to revenge massacres.

When will the Syria crisis end? God knows.

God knows because this crisis is increasingly not about freedom but about religion.

The Syrian war is turning into a sectarian conflict whose influence will spill beyond the country's borders.

There was the chance at the beginning to stop that being the case. That chance has been lost.