The Syrian conflict can be broadly split into three distinct phases. The first, which began in mid-2011, saw a civil uprising against al Assad solidify into an armed rebellion, which expanded rapidly through 2013 onward before reaching a stalemate. Moving into 2014, the rebellion entered its third phase as fracturing opposition alliances allowed forces loyal to al Assad to make gains.
The initial stages of the conflict saw localized popular uprisings coalesce into armed insurrection. Low-level insurgent groups rapidly formed and expanded from the local to the regional level. This expansion coincided with more organized, formalized entities such as the Free Syrian Army, a network of patchwork "battalions" mainly centered on command personalities. As the rebellion developed into a countrywide phenomenon, al Assad's forces realized that they had a problem: Because of the geographic dispersion of the rebel groups, the regime was overstretched and was forced to consolidate in core areas. This concentration enabled the rebels to make early territorial gains. Initially, the West's enthusiasm for offering external support to the rebellion was relatively high. A significant amount of logistical, training and financial support also flowed in through Turkey, the lion's share provided by the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Western support remained tacit, and it was never overt enough to tip the conflict in favor of the rebels. From the outset, jihadists and foreign fighters had flocked to Syria to take part in the hostilities against al Assad, bringing with them the skills, resources and expertise associated with terror networks. This migration generated concern among Western nations, as well as fears that any support for the rebels would find its way into the hands of terrorists. Coming away from two majors conflicts in the Middle East and having only narrowly escaped a deeper commitment in Libya, the United States in particular found itself in a quandary.
A muted Western response to the regime's use of chemical weapons in the suburbs of Damascus on Aug. 21, 2013, was a blow to the Free Syrian Army and the rebellion as a whole. Meanwhile, support from Russia and Iran bolstered the al Assad regime, which translated into gains on the battlefield against the rebels. This offensive action further galvanized the jihadist nature of the movement, with significant numbers answering the call to arms, including from groups affiliated with al Qaeda. The introduction of Hezbollah into the conflict on the side of al Assad in response to the emergence of powerful Sunni militias further complicated matters. The civil war had settled into a prolonged period of stalemate as each side carried out offensives and counteroffensives to no avail.
Russia's decision to arbitrate the removal of Syria's chemical arsenal, combined with the presence of terror groups in the rebellion, effectively removed any remaining inclination for Western intervention. Ironically, the West's willingness to work with al Assad over the issue of chemical weapons gave the regime an implied international legitimacy. Despite providing substantial support initially, the Gulf Cooperation Council (led by Saudi Arabia) faced challenges of its own that led to a significant change in strategy — an attempt to crack down on jihadist elements of the rebellion while supporting the Free Syrian Army. A looming U.S.-Iran detente and worsening relations with Qatar have given Riyadh cause for concern, however. Infighting among the various jihadists groups in Syria — with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant taking an aggressive lead — has enabled the regime to solidify gains by cutting rebel supply lines and making territorial advances in Aleppo, Deir el-Zor and Latakia. The sole positive outcome of the rebel fracturing for the Free Syrian Army is its emergence as the only viable non-extremist entity for mainstream external supporters.
Neither side in the Syrian crisis has fought in isolation. From the beginning of the conflict, actors on the local, regional and global stage have provided explicit and backchannel support for both the regime and the rebellion.
Two of al Assad's biggest supporters, Iran and Russia, have been unambiguous in their contributions. Tehran has staunchly backed the regime in every sense. Even the ongoing nuclear negotiations with the United States have done little to weaken its resolve. If anything, the United States appears hopeful that Iran will use its leverage to coax a negotiated settlement between al Assad and the rebels. Moscow's position as a patron to the al Assad regime has become more firmly entrenched as a result of the current standoff between Russia and the West over Ukraine and Crimea. The Kremlin has stopped short of supplying Syria with high-end weapons systems, including attack helicopters and main battle tanks, but deteriorating relations with the West could cause this to change.
Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah sees the Syrian regime as a critical link, benefactor and stabilizing force on its flank. There are significant risks to Hezbollah if the al Assad regime falls, so it will continue to use its paramilitary wing to fight the rebels. Simmering tensions with Israel continue to be a distraction for the group, along with potential spillover of the Syrian conflict into Lebanon, particularly Beirut.
The Gulf Cooperation Council has lacked cohesion in deciding how best to support the predominantly Sunni rebellion without inadvertently helping its terrorist elements. This issue has created internal conflict that has pushed some members to pursue independent avenues of support. Some Gulf countries, including Jordan, have begun providing weapons, funding and direct support to the rebel's southern front. This support has already led to some rebel gains, such as the recent capture of the Daraa prison.
The West can best contribute by backing the Free Syrian Army and the rebel push on the southern front, either directly or indirectly through the Gulf Cooperation Council. While Washington finds the al Assad regime distasteful, the participation of terrorists and jihadists in the conflict precludes unconditional support. Currently there is no appetite in the United States for overt military action, now or in the future.
Turkey, though initially bullish against the Syrian regime and supportive of the rebellion, has backed off significantly. A combination of factors — the potential threat of terrorist attacks, Kurdish separatist issues, the U.S.-Iran detente and the growth of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant — has forced Turkey to withdraw into a mostly defensive posture. That said, Turkey will respond aggressively if necessary; the March 23 downing of a Syrian fighter jet by Turkish interceptors proves that Ankara will protect its borders.
In some ways the Syrian civil war has defied expectations. While the position of both the regime and the rebellion could deteriorate without external support, the truth is that al Assad's forces and the Free Syrian Army have weathered the storm of conflict for years. Although a continued stalemate is unsustainable in the long term, any practical solution to the conflict remains elusive.
Foreign support dramatically favors al Assad. The presence of radical elements has seriously damaged the original intent of the rebellion, raising anxiety about the aftermath if the regime were to topple. All parties, both internal and external to Syria, fear the potential chaos that would ensue should jihadists take power. Libya has demonstrated how destabilizing such a situation is, and there is genuine concern that the creation of a security vacuum in Syria could enable groups such as al Qaeda or the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant to capture the state's resources.
Such a scenario is unlikely to happen as long as the al Assad regime remains cogent. Provided the core rebel movement preserves its integrity and intentions, establishing a dialogue with the goal of achieving a negotiated settlement remains an option. However, the regime rejected the last offer for talks — or any future talks for that matter — which indicates its confidence in its position and in its backers. As long as al Assad feels that he has the upper hand, there is no real incentive for him to engage in talks with the rebels.
Posturing aside, however, the regime may not be as strong as it would like the West to think it is. Militarily, forces loyal to al Assad have proved that they can concentrate forces and win specific battles, especially with the manpower boost from Hezbollah. Despite this, the regular Syrian military has not grown in size or capability relative to the enemy or battle space. Therefore, it still does not realistically have the ability to retake large chunks of Syria, despite some significant gains in the Syrian core and along the Damascus-Latakia corridor. The recent suppression of jihadist elements within the rebellion and the increasing external support for the Free Syrian Army and its southern front ensure that the regime continues to face a credible opponent.
Although the stalemate will most likely continue, the question of longevity remains. While both sides have demonstrated their desire to endure, it remains to be seen how the resolve of the leadership and the low-level combatants holds up. There have already been reports of rebel coordinating committees expressing regret at their decision to engage in a protracted fight against al Assad.
While negotiations between the regime and the rebellion are not outside the realm of possibility, they depend on the ability of either side to significantly influence the other on the battlefield. However, groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant are unlikely to accept any negotiated settlement. Their long-term goals and aspirations are incongruous with the desires of either the regime or the rebel forces because their demands are specific, extreme and impossible to satisfy. Even if al Assad and the Free Syrian Army were able to reach some sort of accord, the radical jihadist elements in Syria would likely continue to fight, which could lead to the evolution of a protracted insurgency. However, such a scenario is largely speculative and unlikely to occur in the immediate future.
There is no clear end in sight to the hostilities, but there are developments in the international sphere that could influence events on the ground in Syria. Russia is busy with its annexation of Crimea and is already dealing with the diplomatic repercussions of its actions. It remains to be seen how any sanctions or economic restrictions will affect its foreign policy decisions in other areas. Iran is managing internal battles surrounding its first tentative steps toward a detente with the West. Saudi Arabia is facing numerous challenges across a broad front, as is Hezbollah, which has domestic issues to face in Lebanon as well as its deteriorating position with Israel. The West has kept its distance from Syria for fear of inadvertently supporting jihadism, but if the Free Syrian Army remains tangible and separate from the radical elements, the United States may review its policy for support. A meaningful change by any of the powerful benefactors to either the regime or the rebellion could shift the balance of power and prompt movement toward a resolution to the civil war. But for now, the stalemate continues.