It is easy to forget two years on that the revolt in Syria started with protesters in the streets bearing their chests to the rifle barrels of armed government forces.
Over the months that followed, the steady internationalization of the conflict – where countries often haphazardly backed or opposed the uprising – has escalated. The conflict today is a fully-fledged proxy war pitting long-standing enemy states against each other. This time the theatre of war is the plains, mountains and deserts of Syria.
Many influential backers of President Bashar al-Assad immediately fell in behind the Syrian government, having essentially tied their own regional interests to that of the regime’s. Both Hezbollah and Iran have elements playing key roles on the ground in Syria on behalf of Damascus. (Interestingly, the Palestinian group Hamas quietly disassociated itself from the regime, feeling there was no way the Syrian government would survive the growing protest movement.)
Russia continues to believe the conflict should be solved by Syrians themselves, even as it fuels Mr. Assad’s war with hard cash and weapons.
France and Britain are increasingly pushing for the arming of select rebel groups. Other EU states oppose this move, however, and Paris and London may well act on their own once an arms embargo again comes up for review in May.
On this side of the Atlantic, the United States is slowly playing catch-up since President Barack Obama changed tack last month and okayed more direct support for opposition groups. Since last summer, his arm has been slowly twisted by the State Department and the CIA: The message was that Washington must do something to stop jihadis gaining a foothold in the Levant. Here, Ottawa stands by as the death count surges and the destruction of a country nears completion.
Arab states are divided over Syria largely on a Sunni-Shia basis. Iraq, ruled by Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia, continues to allow Iran to fly aircraft over its airspace into Syria. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, countries governed by Sunni monarchies, have openly stated they want to arm rebel groups inside Syria, and are doing so. Turkey, led by the Sunni-Islamist AKP, is a loud critic of the Assad regime, though more for territorial security concerns than religious grounds.
Many capitals have pushed for a political solution that would see Mr. Assad step down from his post. But this notion is utterly naive: Mr. Assad and those around him still believe they are winning the war and that the vast majority of Syrians still support him. The diplomatic backing of Russia and Iran is extremely important in reinforcing the sense that Damascus is right. Two years on, the country burns as the world fiddles.