Syria’s civil war is buried beneath the headlines these days, as Israeli forces pound the Gaza Strip, Ukraine struggles with the downing of a commercial jet with 298 people on board and much of Iraq has been taken over by Al-Qaeda-inspired extremists. Libya, meanwhile, is literally going up in flames.
Even with 1,400 Gazans killed over the past few weeks, Syria has not lost its title as home to the world’s deadliest conflict. During a 10-day stretch in mid-July, a record 1,800 people were killed, as the death toll from three years of fighting climbs past 170,000. And as the United States wrangles for a cease-fire to stem the latest violence in Gaza, there seems less hope than ever for a diplomatic solution to Syria’s bloodshed.
The difficulty with Syria is not just that international diplomacy is bogged down elsewhere, working to stave off violence that is viewed as more solvable than the Syrian stalemate. The problem, analysts say, is that for quite a while now, Western resolve to pressure the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has all but dissolved.
Washington and its allies are unwilling to front the tens of billions of dollars or decades of commitment that would be required to guarantee a rebel victory. After three disastrous rounds of peace talks and the resignation of a frustrated United Nations mediator, many in the rebel camp feel their most important backers are ready to let the chips fall where they may.
“The international community knows very well that there is nothing called a diplomatic solution to the Syrian war,” said Ali al-Amin al-Suweid, a political officer with the Syrian Revolution General Commission, an opposition group. “They just use this refrain to justify delaying any action in Syria.”
In part, the problem is one of geopolitical priorities. While Assad has enjoyed the unwavering support of Iran and Russia, Washington and its allies have been unable to muster comparable willpower to keep Syria’s floundering opposition alive. In Israel, Washington has no choice but to back its staunchest ally in the region. In Ukraine the West wants to combat Russian aggression by backing the pro-European government in Kiev. Washington even has a reluctant ally in Baghdad and is deeply committed to keeping oil-rich Iraq together, given U.S. complicity in the current turmoil.
In Syria, however, “there’s no good choice,” according to Joshua Landis, a Syria expert and the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “Its a broken country with no future, no resources and a lot of militias that are diametrically opposed to American values,” he said.
“We armed the mujahedeen [against the Soviets] in Afghanistan in the ’80s and lived to regret that decision. We should’ve let Russia keep it. Now we look at Syria and say, ‘Why take that away too?’”
Washington has long struggled to defend its endorsement of Syria’s moderate rebels, an ill-defined sector of the vast and disjointed anti-Assad movement that is dwindling in numbers as funding dries up — not just from Washington but from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf backers too. Those groups are increasingly edged out by better-funded extremist groups on one front and the Assad regime on the other.
Barack Obama’s administration recently announced a program to arm vetted Syrian rebels, but that is seen as a halfhearted effort to combat both the regime and Al-Qaeda-inspired rebel factions. In line with the White House’s calculus that a better-armed opposition would force the Assad regime to the bargaining table, a U.S.-backed covert support program has recently delivered a fresh round of arms and ammunition to moderate factions in the north. Another $500 million could be on its way if Congress approves, but that might not happen until mid-2015. As The Washington Post’s Liz Sly points out, “By then, there may be few if any moderate rebels left to aid.”
Obama’s boosted aid to Syria is widely considered too little, too late. Many feel the U.S. is merely trying to dodge accusations it has abandoned Syria’s rebels after egging them on for years.
Separate the bleak outlook on the ground, there is rising skepticism that the West would even have anything to gain by facilitating a rebel victory. Though there is disagreement on this, many doubt any group fighting Syria’s war would do Washington and its allies much good in a post-Assad Syria.
“Nobody in Syria wants what we want — liberal democracy. Not one militia,” Landis said. “There’s no champion there that any U.S. politician can wrap his arms around and say, ‘This is our guy.’”
At the same time, the Assad regime presses on with its brutal offensive. In the coming weeks, everyone’s eyes will be on Syria’s commercial capital and largest city, Aleppo, the last major city where Syria’s opposition holds significant ground. Despite a trickle of U.S. and Gulf aid, the rebels were driven out of Homs earlier this year by the Syrian Army, and they have lost other territory to an emboldened Islamic State. Losing the northern city of Aleppo would be a crushing blow for Syria’s revolution.
In a cruel twist of fate, the Assad regime’s use of internationally prohibited barrel bombs to ruthlessly slaughter rebels and civilians alike has had the effect of pulling many beleaguered Syrians back from the revolution’s grip. Defying a February U.N. resolution, Syrian forces have actually made more frequent use of the devastating weapons, according to a Human Rights Watch report released this week.
This so-called barrel diplomacy, Hassan Hassan wrote in Foreign Policy this week, “has pushed some people to welcome peace deals with the regime.” Despite — or perhaps because of — the regime’s use of barrel bombs, “the prospect of an end to the violence is tempting for civilians who have spent the past months coping not only with fighting between the rebels and the regime but also with robbery and looting from rebel subfactions.”
The potential shift in momentum will not happen all at once. Regime airstrikes and lukewarm support have not pierced the resolve of those Syrians who launched the revolution as a peaceful movement back in 2011, Suweid said. After more than three years, the rebels are not ready to lay down their arms. “We started our revolution for dignity and peace,” he said. “Nothing has changed.”