It seems as though neither side can win Syria’s civil war. And the military stalemate indicates the difficulties facing an upcoming peace conference in Geneva. Each side remains committed to its position.
The fronts in Syria’s civil war have largely solidified since June 2013 when government forces, backed by fighters from the Hezbollah militia, conquered the city Al-Qusayr. Since that time, neither the rebels nor the government have booked major gains.
In Deraa, located in southern Syria, rebel troops made it into the city center, but failed to drive out pro-Assad forces. A similar situation emerged in the eastern district of Deir ez-Zor. The only advances appear to have been made by radical Islamist groups, which have evidently expanded their spheres of influence at the cost of other rebel factions.
Joshi Shashank, an expert on Syria with the British security think tank Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), believes a military stalemate has been reached. All of the parties involved are consolidating their positions, Shashank said in an interview with DW. He noted that the regime in Damascus now controlled a corridor from Deraa across parts of the battleground city of Homs and west to Mediterranean coastal areas. Meanwhile, rebels are entrenching their positions in the northwest along the Euphrates River and the border to Iraq.
“The difference on the rebel side is that there is no single rebel alliance that holds territory,” the researcher explains. “It’s a shifting alliance of different rebel groups, some of which are in outright conflict with each other.”
Kurds against jihadists associated with al-Qaeda have accounted for some of the most severe fighting among rebel factions.
Although the war has been going for over two and a half years, with over 100,000 deaths, neither Assad’s forces nor the rebels appear ready to give up. The regime, in fact, seems to consider itself in a stronger position than before.
“The regime calculation is that eventually the rebels will get tired,” says Syria expert Eyal Zisser from the University of Tel Aviv. “If you can survive, then, in the long run, you will be victorious.”
Shashank agrees that Assad thinks he has the stronger position. The RUSI researcher says it’s instructive to compare today’s situation with mid-2012, when Assad’s forces seemed to be losing ground. “In relation to that, [the regime] is doing extremely well,” Shashank said.
Despite little movement on the battlefield, the Syrian government can look back at a number of partial successes recently in the diplomatic arena. By agreeing to destroy its chemical weapons, Damascus has forged a kind of partnership with the international community. As long as the regime continues to enable the work of international chemical weapons inspectors, it need not fear a US military strike.
Shashank also believes that the West is growing hesitant to support what it sees as an increasingly splintered opposition in which Islamists are gaining power. As such, the expert says, Assad might do well to consider attending peace negotiations slated for November 23 in Geneva. “But there’s very little incentive for him to make substantive concessions,” Shashank said.
It’s also scarcely to be expected that the splintered opposition will be eager to agree to compromises, as well. Albert Stahel, a strategic studies expert, notes that the Geneva talks could possibly result in Assad’s withdrawal without effecting a fundamental transition of power in Syria. “The regime cannot collapse; that’s not what anyone wants,” said the Zurich-based professor in reference to many foreign nations’ interests.
Turkey and Saudi Arabia would like to see power passed to the rebels. Everyone else – despite repeated calls for Assad to step down – seems to agree that the government in Damascus should be kept for the sake of stability, Stahel continued. That’s one point, he says, where the interests of the US, Russia and Iran converge.
For their part, the rebels have demanded that Assad step down before they will agree to stop fighting, and the Syrian head of state firmly rejects the proposition. As such, a political resolution remains out of reach. Some within the opposition have already declared they will not attend the talks in Geneva. The Syrian National Coalition, an umbrella group for largely moderate factions, will decide in early November whether to attend.
Patchwork of influence
In practice, Syria is now a divided country. Stahel refers to a patchwork consisting of pro-regime, Kurdish, Salafist-Islamist and other areas. If neither diplomacy nor combat can bring the war to an end, the international community may eventually see itself forced to accept the splintering of the country. But Albert Stahel doubts things will reach that point.
RUSI researcher Shashank notes the concern among some governments that Syria could end up repeating elements of Iraq’s recent history under Saddam Hussein. It seemed as if the Iraqi dictator was just about to lose power in 1991. After the First Gulf War, there were no-fly zones, an oil embargo and revolts against a militarily weakened Saddam Hussein.
“It looked like he was at the end of his rope, but then he held on for 12 years,” Shashank points out.