30 months in, the conflict in Syria has invited more guns than expected. Starting off with a group of breakaway officers who formed the armed rebel core of the Free Syrian Army, Syria is now cursed with a number of auxiliary groups engaging in combat alongside both the government and opposition forces.
The Assad regime seeks the support of the Lebanese group of Hezbollah and the Iraqi group Abu Fadl Al-Abbas Brigade in combat. Their scored victory in the battles of Al-Qusayr stands witness to the effectiveness of Hezbollah in unconventional warfare in unpredictable terrain. The coordinated strategies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's groups in combat pose a sharp contrast to the disoriented and deeply fragmented armed opposition, let alone the political wing of the Syrian opposition.
Aron Lund notes the divisions of the Syrian armed opposition into three main groups: the Free Syrian Army, the Syrian Islamic Front, and the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front. Under the aegis of these groups operate dozens of sub-groups with different ideological orientations, diverging external agendas, diverse sources of funding, and a burgeoning membership base of foreign fighters.
Unlike Hezbollah, which risks losing a vital supply lifeline and political sponsor with the demise of the Assad regime, the foreign opposition fighters identify with radical elements within the Syrian opposition on a narrow sectarian basis. The Syrian cocktail of foreign groups to buttress the regime and opposition fighters alike helps imbue the Syrian conflict with the sectarian die that plagues the region, notably the Sunni-Shiia divide. It is through this framework that the Syrian conflict threatens to debunk the security conditions of neighboring states such as Lebanon, Iraq, and possibly Turkey.
But the key to any potential solution in Syria lies with the Cold War players: the USA and Russia. The media and diplomatic role the USA and Russia played in their divergent interpretations of a reported chemical attack in a Damascus suburb on August 21 contained the seeds for a potential showdown in Syria, with U.S. and Russian fleets floating on Mediterranean waters. Compound this with the preparedness of Iran and Israel to enter the war alongside their allies.
The recent U.S.-Russian deal averts a potential U.S. strike by placing Syrian chemical weapons under international auspices but does not unambiguously indicate an end to Syria's civil war. But it does provide a political vent that the U.S. and Russia could build upon to broker a peace treaty in Syria. The forthcoming months will reveal whether the USA and Russia can summon the world to implement their Syrian roadmap or whether regional spoilers such as the EU, GCC, Iran, Turkey and Israel will continue to fish for their interests in Syria.
Any peaceful solution to the Syrian conflict ought to include a power-sharing agreement involving Assad loyalists and opposition figures in a transitional government. The transitional government ought to work on restoring the peace by promoting the disarmament and demobilization of armed groups, and their subsequent reintegration into the Syrian state and society. These steps should take place under close international auspices to insure genuine implementation of the agreement. Preparing for transparent parliamentary and presidential elections, reconstructing destroyed cities, and repairing damaged infrastructure should also be prioritized on the agenda of post-war governments.
Seeing that the political fog prevents a clear view of such reforms, the Syrian people are likely to be still counting in months and placing their bets on a comprehensive U.S.-Russian deal.