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Syria's Forever War

By James Denselow.

Last month saw the third anniversary of the conflict in Syria that is traced back to children in Daraa writing graffiti on walls. In the same month Rwanda marked the 20th anniversary of its genocide, although now unlike then we can't say that we didn't know what was happening. This year also marks the 100 year anniversary of the start of World War One and the advent of 'total war' that in Syria is something more akin to 'total civil war'. The third anniversary of this bloody denouement of 'the Arab Spring' is a moment of reflection towards a crisis in which there is far more availability of information over what is happening than there is of argument about how to stop it. The phrase 'never again' has been lost to the screams of the over 10,000 children who have died to date. The fact that the UN has stopped counting the dead only compounds attempts to fully realise the scale, depth and ongoing impact of the crisis.

Arguments towards a way out of the darkness have surrendered to the cold hard geopolitics of a conflict that is layered in both character and complexity. A US military observer described Syria as an arena for three simultaneous conflicts; localised fighting, often between elements of the Opposition, a larger civil war and finally a regional fight with international connections and ramifications. Crucially the conflict's current equation is balanced enough to fuel continued fighting with no side believing that compromise or serious commitments to peace talks are necessary. A former Syrian minister on a trip to London proposed that a unjust peace is preferable to a just war, but with a cacophony of voices and players involved nobody is clear who is able to spend the political capital needed to change the conflicts dynamics and more importantly why would they do so now.

The UN and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, is perhaps as good a diplomatic chess player as they come but even he is struggling to keep into the notion of a peace process alive. Geneva 2 with all its hubbub and media attention came and went with little feedback into what was happening on the ground. Rumours abound that Assad will stand for another Presidential term, a nail that would surely close the coffin of a negotiated transition and force the Opposition and their backers to reassess tactics. Against this backdrop of various fronts opening and closing on the ground, with the general narrative one of steady regime gains, the chances for a diplomatic solution have been further battered by the events in Ukraine. The crisis there has not only brought back memories of Cold War tensions but has also blown apart the Moscow-Washington dente that was crucial in securing the Geneva process in the first place. Behind the scenes 'proximity talks' between Opposition and Regime figures were quickly shut down when the crisis emerged and the tit for tat unwinding of the meagre progress that had been made continued when the Americans expelled the remaining Syrian Diplomats and closed their Embassy in March.

The Ukrainian crisis has relegated Syria's war to media oblivion and has essentially created another hurdle to the success of diplomacy over the use of force. However it also comes at a fascinating crossroads of US-Saudi relations with Obama's visit to the Kingdom and the appointment of Prince Nayef to the Syria file suggesting to many observers both a rapprochement between Washington and Riyadh and a change of Saudi tactics towards Syria could be in the offing. The fundamental unknown remains Obama's decision making horizon and whether he is willing to be influenced by the Editorials of the main US papers which are increasingly critical of his hands off approach to the conflict. Questions over US support, both lethal and non-lethal, continue to pop up but are lost in both the politics of the Beltway and an inability to see clearly how they translate into an outcome inside Syria itself.

It is of course a cliché to compare one war to another but it is worth remembering how long the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) went on for. A deadly equilibrium within a grinding conflict that is seeing the country endure both an exodus and a collapse cannot be in any ones geopolitical interest. However without a significant change to the current equation to the crisis it would appear that Syria has further bloody anniversaries to endure ahead.