The formal resignation of UN special envoy Kofi Annan reveals a reality that has been clear for some time: The margin for a diplomatic solution was always small to nonexistent at best.
By the time Annan picked up his brief, the real tragedy of the Syria situation had already been exposed. Too much blood had flowed to sustain a neatly negotiated transition between the rebels and the Assads, and not enough had been spilled to prompt a large-scale foreign intervention to tip the balance against the regime.
Barring some event — a massacre that takes us beyond the levels of the horrific violence we've witnessed so far or the use or loss of Assad's chemical-weapons stocks — it's in this middle ground where the Syria story is likely to play out.
Today's revelation that President Obama signed an intelligence "finding" authorizing more support for the Syrian opposition is part of the administration's incremental middle-ground strategy. The goal is to find a way to support the rebels from the sidelines without creating a slippery slope toward military intervention and to gain additional information about who's who on the ground. It's not just the risks of greater involvement in the Syrian mess that the president fears, particularly in an election year, but the unknowns, including how the provision of military/lethal assistance will contribute to the end state, and what precisely that end state will be.
More than likely we're in for a prolonged period of confrontation between a regime that is growing weaker but still commands considerable assets and an opposition that won't quit but that doesn't have the means yet to deal the regime a fatal blow.
The situation is exacerbated by the divisions within the external opposition that only contribute to the image and the reality that there are too many uncoordinated elements fighting for control, and by an internal opposition that is operating with better command and control but still not unified, particularly when it comes to indigenous jihadi elements that appear to operate somewhat separately.
How influential these groups are now and will be in the new Syria is unclear. But clearly the longer the struggle continues, the more the jihadi narrative is likely to become a legitimate part of post-liberation Syria. There's no doubt that concern about who's who on the ground is creating further caution in the minds of administration officials with regard to the provision of lethal assistance. Part of the purpose of the presidential finding is to "find out" more about who's actually operating on the ground.
If the situation inside the conflict is complex, so is the picture in the region and abroad. Saudis, Iranians, Hezbollah, Turks and Iraqis all have divergent agendas and are playing to some extent in the Syrian arena. It's striking to contemplate the possibility that Syria may come to follow the new Lebanon, where a variety of external actors seek to accomplish their own purposes through the use of proxies. Imagine a situation where the Assads manage even for a time to seek refuge in a mini Alawistan supported nominally by the Russians, Iranians and Chinese.
The Assads will fall, and only then will the real struggle for Syria begin. That contest will define and shape the character of the new Syria. Perhaps with an international stabilization force sanctioned by the international community and billions to rebuild, that polity will have a chance to move through a reasonably structured transition.
But that’s by no means guaranteed. With so many hands inside and outside the country in the pie and yet none of them strong or decisive enough to dominate it, Syria is in for a very rough ride. Ralph Waldo Emerson didn’t know much about Syria, but his wisdom still rings through time. When it comes to Syria, "events are in the saddle and they ride mankind."