In a simple explanation, Syria’s war has inflamed tensions between Sunnis and Shiites, which literally exploded into bombings in Beirut and deadly clashes in Iraq’s Anbar province. What we’re seeing now is a transnational, cross-border confrontation with Syria as its epicenter: Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias are fighting to keep President Bashar al-Assad in power, while Sunni extremists from Iraq bolstered by foreign fighters and support from around the region backfill the rebel side. One troubling trend across all three countries: the presence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the al-Qaida franchise that’s enjoyed rising influence in Syria and claimed responsibility for Thursday’s bomb attack on a Hezbollah stronghold of Beirut.
Hopes for a drawdown are slim, in part because so many players are fighting in the arena. Rebel groups have periodically turned on each other; in some pockets they’ve now collectively turned on ISIS, which has proven its brutality in the pockets of Syria now under its control. As of Sunday, Reuters reports that ISIS had withdrawn from strategic areas of Northern Syria, after taking heavy fire from other Islamist groups.
In southern parts of the country, this week saw a swath of limited cease-fires, starting in Moadamiyeh. Starvation had effectively pushed rebel forces to declare a truce. It’s an indication of how the first wave of revolutionary fighters have been encircled and exhausted, sapping their force in areas under siege.
Meanwhile, in Aleppo, the regime’s firepower (in the form of barrel bombs) killed at least 517 people, by the BBC’s count. The total casualty count of the war, as of this week: at least 130,433, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Yet others are dying of hunger.
Geneva II is now in unknown territory, after the Syrian National Council backed out of peace talks scheduled for Jan. 22. While there was skepticism that Geneva could produce a diplomatic breakthrough, it was still set to be a critically important event. At the very least it would catalyze global powers, pushing towards a potential political transition in Syria – if it were to happen, most likely a regime-led shift in power that brings in some new leadership while largely keeping Assad’s state institutions intact.
If the talks are off, Syrian analysts tell us their next great hope is that the U.S. and Russia can forge a direct path to a diplomatic solution – Russia exercising the upper hand, working out an arrangement that protects its interests and influence over its most important Arab ally.