A clear military victor in the Syria conflict is unlikely to emerge in the coming year, and in order to save lives and rescue the country from total destruction all parties need to consider a fresh approach, Gerald Butt argues.
Conflict fatigue among the reading and viewing public around the world means that the daily loss of life and the suffering of the civilian population in Syria have fallen from the headlines. Only the gruesome murders of Western hostages by adherents to the jihadist Islamic State (IS) group are guaranteed global coverage.
So complex has the Syrian conflict become that its origins are largely forgotten. What has for two years or more been a full-scale war began with a popular uprising in March 2011, sparked by the arrest a group of young boys in the southern town of Dera’a. Inspired by the Arab spring protests in Egypt and elsewhere, they had daubed walls with anti-regime slogans. Security forces opened fire on demonstrators who were demanding the boys’ release, killing several of them. The uprising had begun.
But even then, protests, mostly at this stage calling simply for political reform, could probably have been kept in check if Bashar Assad had acted in a more responsive way. But when he spoke to the nation from parliament in Damascus at the end of March he failed to address either the loss of life at Dera’a or the broader calls for political change.
Looking less like a dictator and more, as The Guardian’s Brian Whitaker wrote at the time, like a “gangly scoutmaster”, he joked and giggled in front of his audience of MPs. In displaying contempt for his people, their self-esteem and their demands, the president was setting the pattern for the regime’s response to the uprising.
The result thus far of this brazen refusal to compromise has been the loss of close to 200,000 lives and the ascendance of jihadist Islam in large areas of what was a staunchly secular state.
While the nature of the Syria crisis as a whole has changed radically since the spring of 2011 one aspect of it has not: President Assad has steadfastly refused to countenance a political settlement that addresses the original grievances of the protesters. He remains adamant that force alone will see his government emerge victorious from what he has consistently called a foreign conspiracy against Syria.
The president’s main backers, Russia and Iran, are equally convinced that the regime can and will survive. They point to the fractured nature of the Syrian opposition and the weakness of its military wing – and to the growing power of IS and other jihadist groups which, they say, represent the international community’s real enemy.
President Assad and his international backers argue that the survival of the Syrian government is essential if the jihadists are to be defeated. At the same time most Western and Middle Eastern states are continuing to insist that a solution to the Syria crisis that leaves Assad in power is out of the question.
So we face a stalemate on the battlefield and a resolute refusal to compromise on the part either of the pro or anti-Assad constituencies. In every conflict a moment comes when new ideas are required and this means that the unthinkable sometimes has to be considered. Surely that moment is close. All sides need to realise that a clear-cut military victory is not an option. President Assad must accept that opposition demands need to be taken seriously, and the rebels and their supporters must drop their insistence on Assad’s removal as a condition for negotiations.
Convincing the two sides to take these steps will not be easy. But with the supporters of both seeing the jihadist ideology of IS as a common threat there is a strong incentive that did not exist a year ago. On the other hand if a diplomatic initiative does not emerge in the months ahead, then we can look forward to the grim prospect of the conflict – in what remains of Syria – continuing into 2016 and beyond.
Gerald Butt, a former BBC Middle East correspondent, is an analyst and author on the region.