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As international attention on the Middle East focuses more on Iran, Iraq and Yemen, the civil war in Syria, now in its fifth year, lurches from bad to worse.

To date, a quarter million Syrians have been killed, and at least that many wounded. More than half of the population of 23 million have had to flee their homes: Four million have sought refuge in neighbouring countries; almost eight million others are displaced within Syria.

There's been a complete breakdown of public services in many areas. Children have missed four years of school. Epidemics are rampant. Starvation and rape are being used as weapons of war. Regional warlords and gangsters prevail in several districts. And there is no end in sight.

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A report published this week by the International Crisis Group says "whatever the parties to the conflict may think, no side is winning." Both the regime of Bashar al-Assad and the long-standing opposition are "incapable of military victory in a war rapidly fuelling the growth of a third category of protagonists: Salafi-jihadi groups," the ICG asserts.

More than that, the civil war is increasingly being internationalized with foreign powers paying the bills and growing numbers of outsiders doing the fighting.

Foreign jihadi recruits form a large percentage of those fighting to overthrow the Assad regime, and they form a majority of those, in groups such as the Islamic State, fighting to establish an caliphate in Syria and Iraq.

Outsiders such as the United States and Canada are fighting in Syria, too – against the Islamic State forces but, in the process, they also are affecting the civil war by weakening the opposition to the Syrian regime.

The regime, too, has become increasingly dependent on foreign fighters, especially the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, Iranian Revolutionary Guard units and Shia fighters from Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

As outsiders gain in importance, they are in a better position to set the agenda for any settlement, the ICG says. For example, "the regime's increasing dependence on Iran-backed militias means that Moscow's influence over Damascus will diminish, relative to Tehran's … not least because militia growth accelerates the erosion of those parts of the state in which Russia is invested, notably the armed forces."

Ironically, the role of outsiders, and the introduction of new agendas, the ICG believes, provides an opening for resolving the conflict.

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The ICG argues that if Syria's traditional opposition, backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, and the Assad regime backed by Iran, were left to themselves – in other words, with no Salafi-jihadi forces – they would recognize there are two "inescapable realities" stemming from this conflict: "Assad cannot rule a postwar Syria; Iran's influence in the Levant cannot be eliminated."

What is required, the report contends, is for U.S. and Western allies to really strengthen the mainstream opposition so it can pull ahead of the IS forces. To do so without alarming Tehran, is the key, however, so they also must signal to Iran that they are willing "to negotiate a sustainable resolution that takes Tehran's core geopolitical concerns into account."

This means that Iran must accept something less than its current unrivalled influence over Syria and secure "what its foreign policy agenda requires: a link to Hezbollah in Lebanon and a Syria not allied exclusively with [Iran's] regional competitors."

The opposition's regional backers – Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar – can attain what they want, the departure of Mr. al-Assad, by agreeing to "decentralized security arrangements and accepting that Syria will be non-aligned rather than join a Saudi, Turkish or broader Sunni axis."

The report is well thought through, said Yezid Sayigh, a senior analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center, "but I think there is little prospect for the political process the report suggests."

More likely, he says, there will be "continuing conflict at least into next year." Only then might the regional powers agree on a framework for ending the conflict.

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The problem, Mr. Sayigh said, is that the Assad regime "is becoming too brittle" and will not be able to deliver on its side of the bargain.

That failure could trigger an internal power struggle that leads to a new regime that will prolong fighting, or a complete collapse that will allow more extreme jihadis to pick up the pieces.

The idea of carefully calibrating a transitional authority that leads to democracy seems unlikely.

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