So what happens now? Neither the Syrian rebels nor the Syrian government forces have the wherewithal right now to land a knockout punch against their opposite number. Unless there is something that is injected into the current equation — such as outside military intervention — that would create an imbalance of power on one side or the other, a stalemate of bloodletting and the disintegration of state and society will continue.
The new UN special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, has it right. His latest pessimistic report on Syria will not raise unrealistic expectations. The conflict has become so existential and militarized on both sides that no new diplomatic initiative stands a chance. He needs to develop relationships, assess a fluid political and military landscape and prepare for a time when a diplomatic initiative may be worth pursuing.
But that opportunity may not come anytime soon. The domestic, regional and international dimensions of the crisis have become more intertwined — and therefore more complicated and difficult to unravel without causing more harm than good.
Syria has become a diplomatic and strategic battleground between the US and Russia, between Iran and its allies on one side and Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey on the other, between Sunni Arabs in Syria against minority religious groups (primarily Alawites and Christians) in a conflict that is increasingly sectarian and finally, between different rebel factions along an array of fault lines. These factions include ex-pats/exiles outside of Syria versus those fighting and dying on the ground inside Syria, the more conservative Sunni Arabs (including small groups of Salafist al-Qaeda types) versus the more secular rebels and those who are militant about removing any vestiges of the regime versus those who still cling to the possibility of a negotiated solution — and mixed into all of this are decades-long personal antagonisms as well as the cancer of self-aggrandizing jockeying for post-Assad positions.
That the opposition appears to be fragmented is not surprising. Insurgencies by their very nature are de-centralized. They almost have to be, at least at first, in order to survive and eventually succeed. But there are ominous signs that point to continued divisions in the opposition that may transcend the weakening or fall of the Assad regime. In fact, the Lebanonization of Syria is a real possibility.
Lebanon's problems began with a sectarian society born out of French manipulation after World War One, a political creation that never developed a strong enough central government to keep a lid on sectarian antagonisms that tended to mask deeper tensions regarding the apportionment of power. Lebanon seemed to muddle through it all for a time, but its location on the front line of the Arab-Israeli conflict made it inevitable that it would attract the attention of outside powers seeking influence by aligning with one of the many factions who were open to being bought and sold in order to compete with other factions. Lebanon became a proxy battleground at many different levels between an impressive array of regional and international players. Syria is headed in this direction.
Even if the Assad regime survives, it will no longer control the country as it once did. Instead, zones of government control will face off against zones under the control of rebel groups. The latter would most likely represent different Syrian rebel factions supported by different regional powers. The political landscape will frequently shift as some players, including what is left of the government, align with others to out-flank rivals, the interstices of these encounters often marked by conflict and terrorism, always threatening to morph into a broader regional conflagration. This is not a pretty picture.
Unless the opposition somehow discovers a truly inclusive leadership that outlines a vision for the future that is representative of the Syrian population as a whole, there may not be anything the international community can do at this point to prevent the Lebanonization of Syria. Military intervention could very well make things worse. The only viable option may be to insulate the country until the Syrians themselves, through exhaustion, desperation or via a group that becomes the dominant player and able to impose itself upon the rest of the country, come together and find the wherewithal to move forward. But this may take time.
The Arab spring raised hopes for a better future in a number of Arab countries, and despite inevitable growing pains, there is still reason to hope. In Syria, however, that hope is fading by the day.
David W. Lesch is a professor of Middle East History at Trinity University and the author of Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad.