On its current trajectory, and with no military or diplomatic breakthrough on the horizon, the Syrian war will worsen. Four years into a popular uprising that gradually degenerated into civil strife and regional proxy war, the conflict’s Syrian protagonists – the regime and its loyalist militias versus the broad spectrum of armed rebel factions and the external political opposition – are too fractious, fragile and heavily invested in their current courses to break with the status quo. They are also, as should be clear by now, incapable of military victory in a war rapidly fuelling the growth of a third category of protagonists: Salafi-jihadi groups. The sides’ respective state backers are better positioned to change tack and so affect the course of events, but they are prisoners of their own shortcomings, fears and wishful thinking.
Whatever the parties to the conflict may think, no side is winning. Even as loyalist forces consolidate control over their core areas in western Syria (from Damascus to the coast, via Homs), the regime’s broader military situation is deteriorating. Manpower constraints and a high attrition rate render it unable to replenish steadily depleting ranks with effective Syrian soldiers or militiamen; as a result, it grows increasingly dependent on foreign fighters, including Hizbollah and other non-Syrian Shiite militias allied with Iran. Yet even with such support, the regime is losing ground outside its core areas – as demonstrated by rebel gains in the south between August 2014 and April 2015; the fall of Idlib’s provincial capital in March 2015; and Islamic State (IS) progress against regime forces in central Syria in March-April 2015.
The mainstream opposition’s scorecard is similarly mixed. Though U.S. and Arab-backed factions in the south hold the upper hand over jihadi groups and took the lead in the aforementioned rebel gains, their counterparts in the north lost ground to al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra in late-2014 and early-2015. Al-Nusra eliminated leading U.S.-backed factions from Idlib and Aleppo provinces; though a range of Islamist factions which reject its transnational jihadi agenda and enjoy links to Turkey and Qatar remain powerful in the north, they depend on significant al-Nusra participation in battles with the regime and their efforts to hold IS at bay north of Aleppo.
U.S.-led airstrikes have helped drive IS from some Kurdish areas east of Aleppo but have not fundamentally weakened its hold in eastern Syria. Nor have they prevented it from gaining ground elsewhere, as seen in IS’s April 2015 assault on the besieged Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, a Damascus neighbourhood.
If Syria and its external stakeholders are to escape more years of war, rising costs, further destruction of the nation’s torn social fabric and worsening trans-border radicalisation, a serious effort must be made, first and foremost, to define the parameters of an ultimate political solution. Both sides and their state backers will need to make significant concessions to address now inescapable realities: Bashar Assad cannot rule a post-war Syria; Iran’s influence in the Levant cannot be eliminated.
External actors wary of the difficult choices should bear in mind not only how terrible this war has become, but also the destabilising potential of its continuation. The Syrian conflict involves an array of destructive phenomena: the regime’s use of chemical weapons, ballistic missiles and barrel bombs against its own people; mass detention, torture and execution by state security services; collective punishment through starvation and indiscriminate shelling by both sides, on different scales; sectarian cleansing; suicide-bomb attacks; foreign volunteer fighters; warlordism and gangsterism; rape as a weapon of war; and, with the break-down of public services, epidemics. A large percentage of children living through these trials have not attended school for several years. Misleadingly called the “lost generation”, they have no escape and will be the ones who, for better or worse, shape Syria’s future. All this is at the heart of the region and on Europe’s doorstep.