By James Denselow.
Earlier this week the Telegraph's Chief Foreign Correspondent surmised that "the disaster in Syria is getting steadily worse, and no one has any idea what to do about it". I would agree with the first part of his argument but would suggest that the internal dynamics in the country don't reflect a stalemate absent of ideas, but rather the continued erosion of the regime's sovereignty over the country.
In March 2013 the conflict will have raged for two years. The breathtaking momentum of the Arab Spring has been stuck in the deep bloody mud of a civil war that has seen over 40,000 killed, more than 150,000 wounded and an estimated 13% of the population (3 million) forced from their homes. At time of writing MSF has reported that the eastern city of Deir Azzour (pre-war population 600,000) is under siege and in a desperate state.
In Syria the unstoppable force of the Arab Spring has clashed most spectacularly with the unmoveable realities of the region's geopolitics. An American diplomat has described Syria as a proxy war, a civil war and lots of small internal wars all happening at once. CIA officers sent to the country in 2011 reported back that the conflict was far too fragmented for them to see any easy answer to what Washington should do.
Russian and Chinese intransigence at the United Nations has gummed the mechanisms of international war and peace. Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi has admitted that his job is looking at a wall, trying to find any cracks.
The US has been unwilling to grasp a complex nettle with a war weary population and a weak economy at home. Obama's 'leading from behind' is a policy backed by the American public as well as the media establishment, both the New York Times and the Washington Post publishing editorials recently praising his pragmatic approach to the conflict.
However on the ground things are changing quickly, forcing both the US and the Europeans to adopt a far more proactive approach in order to influence what happens in Syria. In Aleppo, Syria's largest city and its economic hub, the rebels continue to push forward. As the US discovered in Iraq, long supply lines through hostile rural areas are prime territory for roadside bombs and other deadly ambushes. The Regime's supply lines are stretched and their increasing reliance on airpower in the north is a reflection of such weakness. An analyst recently back from the region predicted Aleppo's fall in 2013, a body blow to the regime and an opening of a space that some say could be Syria's Benghazi allowing massively ramped up logistical support to the Opposition.
In Damascus, despite the failure of the rebels 'Operation – Damascus Volcano' in July, a new offensive has focused on the suburbs and the symbolic and tactical location of the international airport. Since the start of the protests and then the fighting the regime has steadily ramped up the fire power it has deployed. What started with tear gas and bullets has evolved into Napalm (according to Human Rights Watch) and Scud missiles. Unnamed US officials have even begun to speculate that Assad would use chemical weapons in a final act of desperation.
Prompted by the rapid rebel advances on the ground and continued fears of insecurity over spilling into key allies such as Turkey and Jordan, the Western powers have upped their game. November's meeting in Doha nominally linked all the opposition elements together under one hat – the aptly long named 'National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces' (NCSROF). This wasn't a cathartic coming together of different opposition elements but rather London and Paris leaning on Doha, Riyadh and Ankara to ensure that the groups under their patronage signed up to what was seen as the only game in town. Likewise the decision this week by rebel commanders from across Syria to join forces under the 'Supreme Joint Leadership Military Council' reflects a stronger 'push from behind'.
The US, Germany and the Netherlands are putting Patriot missiles along with battery personnel into harms way along Turkey's border with Syria and soon enough real questions will likely be asked as to why the West is only providing non-lethal support to what it now officially recognises as the legitimate representatives of the beleaguered Syrian people.
In short the questions as to whether Syria will become a Lebanon, an Iraq or even a Somalia are forcing the hand of reluctant Western governments to get more involved in Syria. The US attempt to marginalise the Nusra Front as a 'terrorist organisation' within the Opposition reflects a desire to shape things going forward rather than letting the chips fall as they may. With the Senate passing a resolution demanding a confidential report into military options and the White House likely to pivot around new studies into Syria expect a more proactive approach to country to combine with rapidly moving events on the ground. The general consensus around Assad's demise may rapidly shift to serious questions as to what a post-regime Syria will look like.