The aftermath of the Arab Spring is still being felt across the Middle East. In recent weeks, Egypt has taken centre stage, deflecting attention from the bloody civil war in Syria. More than two years after protesters called for president Bashar al-Assad to resign, 100,000 lives have been lost and the situation seems as intractable as ever.
In a rare televised address on 4 August, Assad said: “No solution can be reached with terror except by striking it with an iron fist.” He used almost exactly the same wording in an address on 10 January; little progress there.
Meanwhile, international diplomacy is faltering. A second international conference on Syria’s fate, due to be held in Geneva this month, has not happened. It is likely that it will go ahead at some point, but hopes are not high for a negotiated settlement. “I expect the meeting to take place but the question of whether it succeeds remains valid. I’m not too optimistic,” said Ahmed Jarba, head of the Syrian National Council (SNC), last week.
The sticking point remains Assad himself. The SNC and other rebel groups will not accept any transitional government or other arrangement unless Assad is removed from power. Assad is unlikely to agree to this, and so the stalemate continues. Britain and France have stepped back from promises to arm the rebels, but have not ruled it out, and SNC leaders have implied they are getting weaponry from western sources. Regional powers Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been providing arms to the rebels. Iran, Russia, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah continue to support Assad’s regime.
Last week, Saudi Arabia’s national security advisor, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, travelled to Moscow on a public visit. It was a surprise given that the two countries have clashed over Syria. Russia supports Assad’s regime, classifies rebels as terrorists, and accuses Saudi Arabia of supporting these pernicious forces; Saudi Arabia believes that Assad is committing “crimes against humanity”, partly facilitated by its support from Russia. The details of the meetings are unclear; some are speculating that Saudi Arabia wants to strike a deal with Russia about Syria’s fate. It is certainly not alone in believing that the cooperation of Russia – one of Assad’s staunchest allies – is crucial to any future settlement. Western powers are also aware of this.
Assad’s intransigence – further entrenched by recent victories on the ground, helped by Hezbollah fighters – is one of the main obstacles to peace. But another, perhaps even more significant problem is the splintered nature of the opposition itself. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) barely exists; there are instead many disparate armed groups fighting against regime forces and sometimes against each other. The opposition’s political leadership – consisting of the SNC and other groups – attends international conferences, but does not have the slightest modicum of control over these splintered groups on the ground. Often, delegates do not even agree with each other. America and European countries do not know how to proceed or who to co-operate with. No-one – not western powers, not the FSA, and not the SNC – actually knows how to end the conflict.
In the gaping absence of coherent international action, the conflict is evolving dangerously. It has become increasingly sectarian, with risks of this spreading across the Middle East. Many analysts are now saying that the conflict will only end if Syria is divided into three separate regions. This fragmentation is not what anyone wants; but at the moment, no-one can spell out a viable alternative.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.