Middle East

Syria sides head for neither victory nor defeat

Abu Mohammad, a gunsmith, repairs a gun in his shop in the city of Aleppo

With relentless logic, and despite all the dire predictions and alarm bells that have been echoing for so many months, the Syrian crisis seems to be sliding inexorably over the brink, crashing onto the rocks below in a struggling mess into which much of the region is inevitably being dragged.

A series of tit-for-tat escalations has led to a situation where there is little to hold back a regional sectarian war between Sunnis and Shia, with Syria torn apart, regional borders thrown into question for the first time in nearly a century, and the potential for a clash between international as well as local powers.

It is hard to credit that a catastrophe of such magnitude could have begun with a handful of naughty schoolchildren daubing anti-regime slogans on a wall in Deraa in March 2011.

The subsequent, gradually snowballing protests were repressed with such ruthless state violence that it was only a matter of time before peaceful dissent turned into armed resistance.

Once that happened, the huge disparity between regime power and opposition capabilities made it inevitable that the outgunned rebels would look for help across borders drawn through communities, families, tribes, sects and ethnicities in the wake of the secret Sykes-Picot agreement reached between Britain and France as the Ottoman empire was starting to break up in 1916.

From the outset, the Syrian revolt was largely and necessarily a Sunni affair, the Sunnis being the majority and harbouring the bulk of popular discontent against a regime dominated by the Alawite minority.

Sunni communities across porous borders in Lebanon and Iraq - themselves fragile sectarian patchworks - responded sympathetically.

As regional Sunni Arab powers like Saudi Arabia and Qatar - with their own competing agendas - began arming and financing the rebels, Sunni neighbours Turkey and Jordan became major corridors for help to the opposition.

Inevitably, given the increasingly sectarian nature of an increasingly militarised struggle, Sunni jihadis from around the region began flocking to join the fray.

From Iraq, fragmented by the US-led invasion of 2003, came al-Qaeda-linked Islamist militants who formed the core of the Al-Nusra Front, which rapidly started making the running in many of the successful rebel offensives.

Tilting of the balance

Towards the end of last year, with rebels closing in around Damascus city centre, the regime seemed to be on the ropes.

Image caption The entry of Lebanon's Hezbollah into the conflict has deepened the sectarian aspect the war

The army, despite some defections, had stuck together remarkably well. But there was a limited number of combat troops that could be relied on, and they were badly overstretched.

It was time for President Bashar al-Assad to look abroad as well.

He turned to key allies Russia and Iran, and apparently won solid commitments that they would not allow the regime to be overthrown. That turned the tide, as the defeat of the rebels at Qusair showed clearly.

The rebels have also been driven back from many of the suburbs around Damascus. With supply lines cut or threatened, they are no longer in a position to consider storming the capital, and are under pressure on other fronts.

Tehran has been instrumental in this tilting of the battlefield, Moscow less visibly so. Iranian-backed Lebanese Shia fighters from Hezbollah spearheaded the Qusair offensive.

They and fellow Shia militants from the largely Iraqi Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigade, also Iranian-organised, are defending the Sayyida Zeinab shrine on the southern side of Damascus.

Iran has played a key role in building up the National Defence, a largely Alawite militia which is taking over security duties in mainly Alawite areas, helping ease the army's manpower problem.

The Iranian-sponsored regional response to the regime's plight has been entirely through Shia actors, prompting an outraged response from militant Sunni clerics in the region and giving the sectarian dimension of the struggle, and its corrosive regional repercussions, a big lurch forward.

While that is likely to nourish and augment the Sunni extremist element on the rebel side, the tilting of the balance has also galvanised the opposition's Western backers and their regional allies to intervene with pledges of military help to redress the equilibrium by supplying the rebels with quality weapons, especially anti-armour and anti-aircraft missiles.

Deadly stalemate

Iranian intervention has also prompted the Saudis to assert themselves more actively, both in terms of pushing their influence in the opposition National Coalition and of stepping up arms supplies to the rebels.

Just as Tehran appears to have reassured the Assad regime that it will do whatever it takes to save it from collapsing, the West and its allies now seem to be ready to do whatever it takes to stave off a rebel collapse.

Like everything else that has happened, there is a certain logic to that.

Image caption The rebels have been pushed back from their positions near Damascus in recent months

Almost everybody (apart from the Islamist militants) agrees that a political settlement is the only way out of the bloodbath.

But the West could not possibly go into a proposed peace conference, codenamed Geneva 2, with their opposition allies not only in political disarray but also having taken a beating on the battlefield.

So the slogan is, restore balance in the interest of peace. Why should that work?

It did not work six months ago, when the rebels were battering at the gates of Damascus.

If "restoring balance" means creating equilibrium, a stalemate, why would the regime go to Geneva to negotiate its own demise, when it has every reason to be confident of survival?

If "restoring balance" means tilting the scales against the regime to the point where it recognises that it has to capitulate and sacrifice the top leadership, there is little reason to believe that point would ever be reached, even if the regime were on its own, which it is not.

Much more likely, if Damascus came under that kind of pressure, Iran would step up its support to whatever extent were needed, including greater involvement by Iraqi Shia militias, and even directly by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, who are already active in different ways.

Attempts to push for a rebel victory - which the Americans and the West clearly have anyway never favoured, though their Gulf allies do - could thus produce cataclysmic results.

Conversely, if the regime is serious about trying to restore control over the whole country, it would have to mobilise much more support from Iran and its allies than it has so far needed, or risk being seriously overstretched.

It would also collide with what appears to be a new-found Western determination not to let the rebels collapse and the regime win, opening up further possibilities for dramatic escalation.

All of this argues for a kind of stalemate, but with enhanced levels of munitions and violence, more destruction, and of course, more waves of refugees.

But stalemate does not mean stasis.

Partition looms

The regime is much better placed to survive a period of strategic equilibrium and attrition than the opposition.

Image caption The longer the conflict grinds on, the more Syrians are expected to be forced from their homes

It is politically and militarily cohesive, with a clear strategic vision and control, and enjoys the backing of dependable core allies.

The opposition is militarily fragmented into hundreds of vying fighting groups, some completely outside any kind of central control. Its political leadership is a shambles, largely composed of outsiders with scant connection or influence inside the country.

Its outside allies, temporarily united on the need to avoid a rebel collapse, have been too aware of the opposition's faults and failures, and the penetration by Islamist radicals on the ground, to provide the kind of consistent and reliable support that Damascus could count on from Tehran and Moscow.

The opposition would also have to contend with the breakaway tendencies of Kurdish areas in the north, whose inhabitants clearly aspire to the same kind of autonomy that their brethren across the border in northern Iraq enjoy, and the issue of the Al-Qaeda-related Salafi groups which effectively rule in some areas, including the only provincial capital "liberated" so far, Raqqa in the north-east.

In a de facto partition scenario, the regime-controlled areas could thus prove much more stable and coherent than the others.

That now seems the most likely scenario, by default if not by design.

Only two things could save Syria as a unitary state : complete victory by one side or the other, which seems very unlikely, or a political settlement, the chances of which look equally slight.

And as Syria fragments, the cross-border interaction of its component parts is threatening to rend the fragile fabric holding both Lebanon and Iraq together. Frontiers could become increasingly theoretical as Sunni and Shia communities coalesce against one another.

President Assad must be watching with grim satisfaction as he sees his long-standing warnings of regional turmoil coming true.

Damascus has also not been able to conceal its glee at the sight of its friend turned enemy, Turkey, embroiled in internal turbulence.

Image caption The presence of Kurdish groups in the north is one of the complexities of the revolt

The regime has been able to sign up for the proposed Geneva 2 "in principle" without anxiety, given the solidity of its own position and the disarray of the opposition.

The chances of such a conference - if it is even held - producing a viable settlement that would restore Syria's unity seem slim.

There is broad agreement that there should be a "transition", but to what?

The Western powers insist it must be to a future in which President Assad and his inner circle have no part, though at the recent G8 summit they seem to have conceded that the military and security apparatus should remain intact.

But the Russians reject any predetermination of Mr Assad's status. And Iran has made it clear that it will not accept such external diktats.

Why should Iran concede in talks what it has intervened on the ground to prevent?

Tehran cannot accept any formula for Syria's future that would end its status as the fulcrum of the "axis of resistance" linking it with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

With such major themes caught up in the struggle, it is hard to see how it can be tranquillised without some sort of grand new understanding between the US and Iran, involving Russia, Israel and many others.

The ramifications of such a "New Deal" - the Iranian nuclear issue, the Israel-Palestine conflict - are such that it is fanciful to imagine it happening.

In the meantime, as the turbulence rages all around, the Israelis need do no more than heed the ancient Chinese axiom : "It is better to sit on the hill and watch the tigers fight."