Regardless of who is or is not losing the war in Syria, it is safe to say that no one seems to stand any chance of winning it. It is a lazy pattern of thought, but a strong one: wars are always discussed in terms of winners and losers, first shots and capitulations. But what this perspective misses is that many conflicts have no discernible end at all. They simply drag on until readers yawn and reporters leave, and go on to mutate into new forms, settling into spheres of influence and establishing stateless violence as the new normal.
The Syrian war may be one of these conflicts. With half of the population driven from their homes, the economy in irreparable ruin, multisided foreign intervention, and sectarianism at a fever pitch, neither President Bashar al-Assad nor any constellation of rebel groups seems able to put a country called Syria back together again.
At this point, it is almost impossible to envision a realistic and stable (never mind democratic) end state dominated by one of the three major contenders for power in Syria.
The government keeps saying that Assad is winning. He is not, except maybe in the Charlie Sheen sense of the word. The Syrian ruler is now all stick and no carrot. Even if we make the bold assumption that he can survive and stay in fighting shape for years to come, Assad does not seem to be either able or willing to engage in meaningful political compromise of the kind that could relegitimize his regime internationally and domestically. Nor does he have the resources to militarily overpower all of his enemies at once or buy back rebel towns with economic incentives. Unless he someday gets the requisite international backing to fully dominate the battlefield—which is unlikely—he’s not going to rule a united Syria ever again. And in the meantime, Assad’s refusal to step down or significantly compromise continues to drive many Syrians into the arms of the insurgency.
Because the Syrian regime suffers from dwindling resources and a severe manpower deficit, and Assad’s international allies are hurting from low global oil prices, the rebels could theoretically pull the rest of the state down if given enough foreign support. But they remain linked to extremist factions and divided to the point where they have no alternative government to offer—merely new forms of Islamist-dominated chaos—and are thus unlikely to ever get that support.
Additionally, the so-called Islamic State has proven itself able to expand in some areas of Syria even as it loses territory in Iraq, but the idea that it could establish a stable and viable dominion over the Levant is preposterous. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s pseudo-caliphate has only succeeded through the failure of its opponents. However much of a menace such a movement may be in a fractured war zone, the Islamic State remains manifestly unfit to rule a real country. Just like Assad and the rebels, the Islamic State can tear down others and act as a powerful spoiler, but it is unable to win in any meaningful sense of the word.
When the Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi took over the job as United Nations and Arab League peace envoy in 2012, he warned of the “Somalization” of Syria. The violent and well-deserved overthrow of longtime Somali dictator Mohammed Siad Barre in 1991 was not followed by either democracy or a new dictatorship, but by permanent anarchy. A quarter of a century later, the international community has by and large written off Somalia as a lost cause—an ex-nation whose unfortunate citizens can expect nothing more from the world than the occasional military intervention to tamp down pirates and jihadi groups.
Unless a critical mass of actors can be made to accept some form of ceasefire or a patchwork of ceasefires, underwritten by God knows what political arrangement, this is also where Syria is headed. One faction or another may certainly gain the upper hand before splintering and starting all over again, and some warlords will be more powerful than others. Cities will be taken and retaken, and battles will be won and lost, until we all lose track. But you cannot win a war like Syria’s any more than you can win a plague or an earthquake.
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