Kofi Annan’s resignation as a United Nations peace envoy has left Syria in free-fall. Never have things looked gloomier for the country.
The capital, Damascus, and the country’s largest city, Aleppo, are now on the front lines of an expanding conflict that, on any given day, can involve fighting at scores of different sites across the country.
What began 17 months ago as a demonstration for democratic rights, akin to protests last year across much of the Arab world, has developed into a full-fledged insurgency against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, with neither side able to strike a decisive blow.
As the International Crisis Group put it in a report this week: “That the regime has been weakened is incontrovertible. But it has been weakened in ways that strengthen its staying power.”
And while the regime is hitting insurgents hard, the independent non-governmental organization said, “its ruthless practices have guaranteed a virtually limitless pool of recruits prepared to fight with the opposition at any cost.”
It was because of this apparent paradox that Mr. Annan, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning former UN secretary-general, threw in the towel.
Arriving at a political settlement, however, wasn’t always a “mission impossible,” as Mr. Annan put it.
In the first days of the popular uprising, in March last year, largely peaceful protests were met with stunningly harsh measures that left several young people in the Deraa area of southern Syria dead.
Mr. al-Assad, who had just witnessed the unimaginable fall of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, undoubtedly wanted to nip in the bud any large-scale popular uprising in Syria.
The deployment of deadly force by the local security forces was followed immediately by an apology from the President, who fired the governor of Deraa for overreacting.
No doubt, Mr. al-Assad thought his clever two-step would leave the Syrian people with just the right amount of fear and gratitude to quiet any efforts to enlarge the protests.
But when several weeks of regular Friday demonstrations expanded to many locations, each met with a similarly harsh response, and when Mr. al-Assad’s modest attempts at political reform were ignored by the public, a decision was made at the highest level to bring to heel the widening network of protesters.
The solution, implemented by the largely Alawite security forces, was based on the premise that harsher measures would restore law and order, and allow the President’s political reforms to be implemented.
From the early days of the conflict, the regime sought to shed or marginalize influential people among the leadership who argued for different measures. A deputy prime minister, Abdallah al-Dardari, who had been responsible for economic reforms, was pushed out in April last year. Vice-President Farouk al-Sharaa, who chaired a meeting on political reform and gave what some say was the kind of presidential address Mr. al-Assad should have given, has been almost invisible since the summer of 2011.
Also that summer, Brigadier-General Manaf Tlas, a one-time close associate of the President and one of the most prominent Sunni Muslims in the country, was quietly relieved of his command. Gen. Tlas had met with members of the opposition and argued for non-violent solutions. (Two weeks ago, he defected, slipping out of the country to France.)
By late last year, however, it was apparent the security solution was not working – it only served to drive opponents to armed rebellion. The “wall of fear,” as Syrians called it, which gave the security forces their authority, had toppled.
It was about that time that the “Russian option” surfaced behind the scenes. It called for Moscow to persuade Mr. al-Assad to step down, much as the recalcitrant Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was persuaded to do so by his powerful benefactor, Saudi Arabia. But Russia never made a move.
“I think they realized they would never convince Assad, and didn’t want to lose political capital by failing,” a former senior official in the regime said.
With Arab League and United Nations condemnations raining down on him, Mr. al-Assad switched tactics and moved, in January this year, to a military solution – once again coupling it with yet another attempt at political reforms.
Within weeks, he rammed through constitutional changes that ended the Baath Party’s monopoly, held supposedly multiparty parliamentary elections, in which no one reputable wanted to run and few people voted, and appointed a new government. On June 3, he proclaimed the reform program complete.
By the end of June, however, he changed his tune and announced an “all-out war” against the growing opposition. “We can only make serious progress on the political front once the violence stops,” Mr. al-Assad said.
The template for the military solution had been devised in the Homs district of Baba Amr back in February. With the armed insurgents hidden deep in that neighbourhood, the military employed a scorched-earth approach, levelling much of the area, driving out the inhabitants and allowing private pro-regime militias, the shabiha, to carry out killings.
It was a technique applied numerous times since then and is currently being used in Aleppo.
The effect of all this, however, was only to drive the opposition to greater militancy and radicalization.
In July, rebels entered the capital and a bomb planted inside security headquarters killed four senior members of the security leadership. Fighting broke out in downtown districts of Damascus and rebels seized several border posts on the Iraqi and Turkish frontier.
Along with their new militant prowess, the opposition was adopting an increasingly Sunni jihadist ethos. Fuelled in part by the discourse of supporting states Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and practised by the numerous international jihadists who had flooded into Syria to join the fighting, the conflict took on a more confessional tone.
Scenes such as this week’s summary executions in Aleppo and at border posts two weeks ago, along with decidedly sectarian rhetoric, has generated existential fears among the regime’s Alawite supporters.
“The fear actually works to the regime’s advantage,” said Yezid Sayigh of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “It helps it marshal its forces.”
Indeed, it has become the accepted wisdom among Syria’s Alawites that if Mr. al-Assad falls, they fall, too.
As the opposition morphed into a more jihadist fighting force, the regime was transformed into one big militia fighting for its life.
They are like two forces that feed off each other, “driven,” the International Crisis Group said “by the same goal: unmitigated victory.”
And international support, whether from Iran and Russia for the regime – or Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey for the opposition – has given each side the means to ensure it can fight on, but not enough support to defeat the other side.
So what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? They both lose.
In Greek mythology, from which the paradox comes, the magical dog Laelaps, which always caught its prey, was sent to capture the troublesome Teumessian Fox, which never could be caught.
When Zeus saw the contradiction – that neither could triumph – he turned both animals to stone and cast them into the stars.
What happens to Syria with such forces that can’t succeed?
Israeli analyst Mordechai Keidar has predicted the collapse of the state into five or six mini-states as once existed under French occupation in the 1930s.
Others, such as the former senior Syrian official, said the scenario is likely to be much worse – complete fragmentation.
“Already we are seeing this happen,” said Alastair Crooke, author of Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution. “In Idlib,” an area in the northwest from which the regime has largely withdrawn, “there are 80 different militias fighting among themselves, vying for control.”
“It is becoming clearer by the day,” the International Crisis Group report concluded, “that the outcome of the struggle will be much messier than either party once hoped.”