As the death toll continues to ascend, now reaching over 140,000, Syria has entered its fourth year of war on a high stakes battleground. The distinction between the war’s dynamic three years ago and today, however, is stark.
A once largely unified rebel faction has been reduced to infighting amongst radical Islamist forces and secular moderate elements. Whereas moderate tone and language initially defined the opposition in Syria, Islamist groups from neighboring countries seized the opportunity to implant their influence in the region. These groups then began to join rebel forces, offering supplies and strategy. After all, several of the Islamist fringe groups had already been involved in guerilla-style warfare in places like Iraq.
Yet original members of the opposition cause, who also value the overthrow of Bashar Assad, part company with extremists when it comes to the system of government they prefer after Assad is removed. Fighting between rebel coalitions has thus become commonplace. Of all the potential setbacks for Bashar Assad, he has not had to worry about a unified opposition.
Among other advantages for Assad belongs a steady flow of aid from Russia and Iran. Since the war began several commentators and analysts have suggested that the Syrian conflict amounts to nothing more than a proxy war between great powers. To some extent this holds true. Moscow and Tehran have remained heavily invested concerning both money and weapons, while the U.S. has reluctantly weighed in from time to time on the rebels’ behalf.
But these edges for the Syrian government, to put it mildly, over rebel forces have also accumulated into victories on the ground. In the month of March alone the opposition suffered several setbacks. Government forces and Hezbollah militants recaptured the border town of Yabroud in the middle of March, making strategic gains. The town’s proximity to both Lebanon and the highway used by rebels to transfer combatants and weapons made the victory especially crucial. Government soldiers alsoregained two towns close to Lebanon’s border at the end of March, signaling further triumph for Assad’s forces.
Between the general picture of the Syrian opposition as a splintering faction and these recent battlefield performances, the rebels are clearly in disarray. Driven to recruit extremist ideological fighters to enhance their stamina on the ground, the rebels sacrificed much of their cause. Further, with these salient defeats the whole opposition has been set onto the back foot.
Yet while these developments are all ongoing, attention on the Syrian conflict has increasingly lessened. As Bashar Assad looks poised to seek another term in office this summer (an election the opposition is already deeming fraudulent), and after failed peace negotiations at Geneva the atrocities in Syria continue. Amid these remains the shocking refugee crisis, which has risen to over 2.5 million people.
Acknowledging the war’s likelihood to persist is one matter, but dealing with the consequences of that awareness is another matter entirely. The rebels are not who they used to be and disputes among their own ranks have become the rule rather than the exception. For this reason among several others Assad has managed to gain the upper hand. These are neither details in the region nor on the world stage and deserve attention.