Peter Harling and Sarah Birke write: Despite belated realization of the conflict’s horrendous costs — by the end of the year, aid agencies predict, there will be 3.6 million refugees and 6 million in need inside the country, out of a population of 23 million — outside players show no sign of willingness to agree among themselves to help Syrians find a solution. Much mooted Russian-American negotiations have led nowhere, as Moscow stubbornly continues to back Asad and Washington is unwilling to offer incentives to alter that calculus. Meanwhile, countries united only by their rejection of Asad give priority to their own differing interests and rivalries as they vie to lift their clients above others within the opposition, exacerbating its fissiparous nature.
The conflict’s next step likely will be to engulf — and ultimately destroy — the capital, the seat of power, Syrian identity and what is left of the state, since the bureaucracy that remains operational is based there. Since early in 2013, opposition militants have made gains in the southern plain stretching up from Jordan to Damascus, a pathway to the regime’s nerve center. Meanwhile, armed groups in the capital have pushed further toward salient sites, including the presidential palace. But the rhetoric of a “final push” that opposition commanders and some commentators use, suggesting a decisive battle that will both determine and put an end to the ghastly conflagration, is but a pipe dream harking back to the early months of the uprising, when a quick end might have been possible. The regime has dug in on the heights of the capital, where it is virtually impregnable, preparing itself for war’s inexorable creep to its doorstep.
If the rebel incursion into Aleppo in July 2012 altered the dynamics of the conflict, the battle for Damascus will do so to a greater extent, as the destruction of the city that all have focused on brings down with it the sense of purpose and ultimate goal that continues to animate both sides. The consequences go beyond the predictable. In many other encounters, the regime has escalated its violence in response to opposition gains while the opposition has become more ruthless. Wrecking Damascus may simply increase the nihilism on both sides, or it may introduce a genuine international effort to end the conflict. The regime, unlikely to fall tidily in any foreseeable scenario, may see its cohesiveness partially shaken, and spawn large militias as it breaks up. Erasing the seat of power without vanquishing the enemy would almost certainly cause further fracturing of the opposition as it struggles to define, in this new dynamic, an overarching aim, while militant groups squabble more fiercely over spoils. If the conflict does not yet fit neatly into the definition of a civil war, the concomitant fraying could well trigger a drift toward something reminiscent of neighboring Lebanon’s, which dragged on for 15 long years.
If there is a happy footnote, it is that amid war’s many horrific tolls on country, body and soul, there are still numerous signs of hope in Syrian society. While some commentators warn that the country is turning into Somalia, with its powerful warlords, or Iraq, with its now indelible sectarian tensions, the Syrian society and people continue against all odds to exhibit unique features that are undersold by such comparisons. Civil administrations or local figures pop up to attempt to run local services in areas where the government has withdrawn. A man in Douma makes walking sticks from mortar shells and builds heaters from used rockets. In the grimmest conditions in Aleppo or Idlib, the displaced scrabble to offer hospitality, a shred of dignity in their darkest hour. A schoolteacher runs lessons from a back room. Given a chance, this society may pull through; it might fare better still if the conflict draws swiftly to a close and the aftermath is skillfully handled.
With each day of the conflict — today is day 763 — those chances become slimmer, diminishing Syrians’ sense of national identity and their pride in their society. Their purported “allies” and “friends” are their curse. The US, Russia, Qatar, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Turkey and Hizballah all claim to care when in fact they are defending their own prerogatives. With incremental, indecisive interference from all sides, further escalation is almost inevitable. Syria’s all-out civil war, if it comes to that, will no doubt go down in conventional wisdom as an outburst of communal hatred inevitable within a mixed society. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is the product of an international standoff and cannot be rolled back without an international tradeoff. However much Syrians suffer, the war in their country is not in their hands. It is a conflict that disfigures Syrian society more than reflects it. And that is the Syrian heartbreak.