How Will the Syrian Crisis End?

Westerners find it hard to believe that a crisis like Syria cannot be stopped. Surely, someone can and must do something is the consensus thinking. If the UN and diplomacy have failed, then it is incumbent on the White House to muster the moral authority to settle this tragedy using the power of the US military. “We just cannot sit back and let this tragedy unfold without doing something” has become the standard line with every mention of this crisis. The sad truth is that those hoping for a quick resolution to this crisis are likely to be disappointed. Contrary to expectations in some quarters, the US is unlikely to enter into a direct war with Russia over Syria. The moral argument for intervention cannot balance the immense risks that the US military will have to undertake in a direct and costly war with Russia. Regardless of hawkish rhetoric on the campaign trail, chances are that the new occupant of the White House will soon come to the same policy conclusions of the sitting President. As chances of US military intervention fade away in the face of real world constraints and limitations, the Syrian opposition and their backers will be forced to rethink their current path.

Most Policy makers involved in the Syria crisis have often said that “there is only a political solution for Syria”. The important detail that often goes missing in this argument is timing. Can a political solution take place now or there needs to emerge a clear military winner before the other side realizes that it is time to come to the table? The answer to the question is clear. No political solution can take place now before a winner on the battlefield emerges. The more this process is delayed, the longer this crisis will last and the larger will be the final death count.

Regardless of who made up the opposition at the beginning, the fact is that the current armed groups in control of the battlefield are largely Islamists and Salafi jihadists. The Syrian state has long been accused of releasing such Islamists from its prisons precisely to ensure the outcome we see today. While such accusations are impossible to dismiss wholesale, it is important to recall that one of the early and consistent demands of the opposition has always been the release of prisoners. Leading into the events of Daraa, Damascus had for decades handed extremely harsh sentences to what it considers as Islamists. Such charges often resulted in sentences as long 7 years in prisons like Sednaya. As the crisis first unfolded in Daraa, Sheikh Sayasneh was invited to Damascus in an attempt by the latter to de-escalate the situation. One of the key demands of the cleric was the release of prisoners, the majority of which were Islamists. This pattern was often repeated throughout the early phase of the crisis. While many in the opposition are convinced that the release of people like Zahran Alloush was engineered by Damascus to help radicalize the opposition, the truth is more nuanced. The Syrian State was desperately trying to stop the uprising through both using a stick (swift response against protestors) and a carrot (release of prisoners when urged). While one may still debate the above, the fact is that what the Damascus sees today are insurgents and Islamist armed groups who want nothing less than destroy the Syrian State of the past five decades and replace it with what they call “more Islamist in identity”. This dynamic is not conducive for any credible political solution at the present time. As for the political wing of the opposition, Damascus believes that Qatar has repeatedly prevented this largely powerless group from following US suggestions of entering into more serious political talks during the previous Geneva talks.

What the above leaves us with is the hard truth that only the battlefield will end up deciding the next phase of this crisis. This means that this war is likely to continue. The armed groups and their supporters are unlikely to give up the fight. Ditto for Assad and his strong backers. No one will be able to stop this war till one side incurs enough losses on the battlefield to render this fight nearly over. Sadly, when this happens, the losing side will have so little to gain in a victor and vanquished atmosphere that the incentive to go to the table would be close to nil. Until this scenario becomes the accepted wisdom, we are likely to still be subjected to inevitable daily dose of opinion pieces wondering how we allowed such a tragedy to unfold in front of our eyes without doing anything about it.