At this rate, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad could still hold power in Damascus a year from now

In his World View column, our correspondent find links between the conflict in Syria today and the Algerian civil war of the 1990s. And below: the ghosts of Abu Ghraib

Related Topics

The Syrian president Bashar al-Assad will have no place in any transitional government that follows the civil war in Syria, the UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said this week. But if there are no negotiations, then the Syrian leader stands a good chance of still being in power in Damascus this time next year. On the ground, rebels are making gains, though not enough to end the political and military stalemate. Neither they nor the government forces hold a winning hand.

The Syrian government’s position looks more fragile when viewed from Beirut, London or Washington than it does in Damascus. Last month, I drove the 100 miles from the capital to Homs, the city that was once the heart of the uprising, and heard only a few shots fired on the road. In the city itself, the third largest in Syria, I heard no gunfire, though the Old City is held by the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) and most other districts by the government.

The military tactics of both sides ignore the well-being of civilians in the cities. Armed rebel units move into the suburbs, whether they are welcome or not. In some places, like the large township of Douma on the outskirts of Damascus, the Muslim Brotherhood has always been strong and the FSA is popular. In others, particularly in Aleppo, the arrival of the FSA is regarded with dread.

Local people know what will happen next. Government artillery opens fire and bombs are dropped from the air. The population flees and the contested district becomes a ghost town. The rebels loot government offices, schools, factories and shops. The strongest support for the revolution is in the impoverished Sunni countryside and the city slums. The looting reminded me of Baghdad in 2003 when the poor and deprived Shia of Sadr City took advantage of the fall of Saddam Hussein to wreak social revenge, ransacking everything from the palaces of Baathist leaders to the showcases in the Natural History Museum.

The scale of the looting, and the inability of the rebels to restore regular life in the urban districts they control, strengthens the government. As an alternative to the Baathist police state, the rebels look decreasingly attractive, particularly to those who have anything to lose. For the 30 per cent of Syrians who are Alawite, Christian, Druze or any other minority, the FSA seems like a Sunni militia from which they can expect little mercy. The rebels respond that it is government death squads and propaganda that have forced a popular revolution into sectarian channels.

Could anything happen to change the present balance of power? Over the past year, the rebels have hoped that there would be foreign intervention along the lines of Nato’s air support for the insurgents in Libya. This is clearly not happening because of US and British fears of entanglement in another Middle East war.

Patrick Seale, the author and journalist who is an expert on Syria, says the conflict might become like the Algerian civil war in the 1990s when 200,000 Algerians died but the government stayed in power. But a great difference between Syria and Algeria is that the Syrian rebels have far more outside support, notably from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. The government’s military weakness is shown by its failure to launch a sustained counteroffensive in Aleppo to recapture parts of the city it has lost.

All this makes the Russian proposal for negotiations sound increasingly sensible. The rebel insistence that Assad’s departure be a precondition for talks is unrealistic since he controls most of the Syrian population. So far, there is little sign, unlike in Libya, of divisions within the inner core of the regime that might hasten its end, however dim its long-term prospects.

Forecasts by foreign leaders that the Assad regime is going to collapse of its own accord are in effect predictions of a rebel military victory. This is not going to come any time soon, bar massive foreign intervention. If the war is to end at all, it will be by negotiation. “There is no military solution,” as Mr Brahimi said. “The solution should not wait until 2014. It should be in 2013.”

The ghosts of Abu Ghraib - in court

The subsidiary of a US defence company has just paid $5.8m to 71 Iraqis who allege they were tortured in Abu Ghraib and other US-controlled prisons. But how do ordinary Iraqis view Abu Ghraib?

An insight into this was given a few years ago in a fascinating court case in Baghdad. A man who had bought a house near Abu Ghraib sued those that sold it to him on the grounds that they had not told him he would be close to the prison. He claimed that as a result of this, his house was beset by the ghosts of those tortured and murdered there. He and his family could not get to sleep, nor could he sell his house because potential purchasers were put off by the ghost problem. The court expressed no doubts about the presence of ghosts, but felt he felt he ought to have expected them so close to Abu Ghraib.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Home Care / Support Workers

£7 - £10 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This care provider is looking for Home ...

Recruitment Genius: Web Team Leader

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Recruitment Genius: Client Manager

£27000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A growing, successful, friendly...

Recruitment Genius: Property Negotiator - OTE £20,000+

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This family owned, independent ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Separate lives: Boston’s streets illustrate the divide between the town’s communities  

Migrants have far more to offer than hard work and wealth creation, yet too many exist in isolation from the rest of society

Emily Dugan
Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird has sold 40 million copies  

Go Set a Watchman: Harper Lee’s new novel is more than just a literary event

Joseph Charlton
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'