In the war on terrorism, only al-Qa'ida thrives

World View: Exhaustion could end Syria's bloody civil conflict, so long as foreign backers really want it

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It has been a good week for those who like their hypocrisy neat and straight from the bottle. There was US Secretary of State John Kerry condemning the Syrian presidential election in which Bashar al-Assad was re-elected for a third time against nominal opposition as "a great big zero". But at the same time, the US and Britain said they were officially looking forward to working with president-elect Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt who is turning out to be a somewhat comical figure who cannot even fix an election properly. Despite an official holiday, free transport, massive media support, religious encouragement and the threat of $70 fines for non-voters, polling booths remained stubbornly empty or underused.

Of course, the hypocrisy does not end there. For all his triumphalism over the turnout in Syria, Assad's way of dealing with parts of Syria not under his control is to shell them and drop barrel bombs on them. Nor is the opposition much better when it comes to targeting civilians, except that its means of destruction are much less than that of the state. In Aleppo, the government pounds rebel-held districts in the east of the city, with a population of 300,000, with barrel bombs dropped from helicopters. These attacks have become even more lethal since the helicopters started operating at night when civilians cannot see them in time to take cover.

A reporter in Aleppo, who writes under the name of Edward Dark for the online magazine al-Monitor, mentions a case that "clearly illustrates the ludicrous nature of this inhumane conflict that happened to the Sheikh Maksud neighbourhood in Aleppo". He relates how, when this district was held by Assad's forces, it was regularly shelled by the rebels who said it was full of pro-government militiamen. When the rebels stormed and captured Sheikh Maksud in March 2013, it was the Syrian army that blazed away indiscriminately into the civilian houses that were still standing.

Almost any development in Syria these days should be regarded with some cynicism. For instance, when a ceasefire is declared in a suburb of Damascus and the rebel fighters switch sides, it is often with the assurance that in future they will be allowed to man checkpoints in their districts and have 50 per cent of the takings extorted from passing vehicles. I was in Nabq on the Damascus-Homs main road earlier this year, where government forces had arranged a public celebration of their success in driving out the rebels. Local people angrily pointed out that all that had happened was that rebel fighters, having previously sworn to fight to the last bullet against Assad, had simply joined the pro-government National Defence Force militia and were happily taking part in celebrations of their own defeat and expulsion from Nabq.

The Syrian war has turned into a Syrian version of the Thirty Years War in Germany four centuries ago. Too many conflicts and too many players have become involved for any peace terms to be acceptable to all. A comparison is often made with the Lebanese civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990, with the comforting moral sometimes being drawn that, bloody though it was, eventually all sides became exhausted and put away their guns. But the war did not quite end like that: it was Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and Syria's decision to join the US-led coalition to evict him that led Washington to tolerate Syria extinguishing the last resistance to its rule in Lebanon. It is not a very comforting parallel.

There is no doubt that the Syrian people inside and outside Syria are utterly exhausted and demoralised by their civil war and would do almost anything to end it. But they are no longer in a position to determine their own fate. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are arming and training a new "moderate military opposition" that will supposedly fight Assad and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) along with other al-Qa'ida-type groups. But it is not clear that the "moderate" military opposition really exists except as tightly controlled cats' paws of foreign powers.

The next few months should tell if Assad is strong enough to break the stalemate, though this seems unlikely. The combat forces of the Syrian army have hitherto been able to fight on only one front at a time. Jordanian officials say that Syrian forces are being strengthened just north of the border in Daraa, where the uprising began in 2011, and they expect a Syrian army offensive. If this happens – and Syria is full of stories of big offensives that never materialise – this would be a sign that the Syrian army is finally gaining the ascendancy rather than just nibbling away at rebel strongholds.

It has become increasingly obvious over the past year that al-Qa'ida type movements, notably Isis, Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, have come to dominate or can operate freely in a great swathe of territory across northern Iraq and northern Syria. This gives Isis a vast hinterland in which it can manoeuvre and fight on both sides of what is a largely nominal Syrian-Iraqi border. The prospect is always there for an even more explosive conflict: last week, Isis columns of vehicles penetrated deep into the city of Samarra in Iraq, coming within less than two miles of the golden-domed Shia al-Askari shrine, the blowing up of which by al-Qa'ida in Iraq in 2006 led to a savage intensification of the sectarian civil war in which tens of thousands of Sunni and Shia were butchered.

So long as the Syrian civil war continues, it benefits groups such as Isis, which wants to create its own state and not just get rid of Assad, because fanatical armed groups, with fighters prepared to be killed, always benefit from conflict. By the same token, moderates lose out or are marginalised as the situation becomes more and more militarised and Syrian public opinion counts for little.

But it still counts for something. One of the few positive events to occur in Syria in recent weeks is the evacuation of the Old City of Homs by 1,200 fighters, who were allowed to bring their personal weapons to rebel-held territory, while, at the same time, two pro-regime Shia towns, Zahraa and Nubl, besieged for two years by the opposition, received humanitarian convoys. In addition, 70 hostages taken in Aleppo and Latakia were released. What is encouraging about this deal is that different rebel groups were coherent enough to negotiate and implement an agreement, something that had been deemed impossible.

Europeans have not yet woken up to the significance of these anarchic zones opening up on the shores of the Mediterranean in Syria and Libya. This is because the threat has been largely abstract but it is getting less so with the attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels by a French jihadi who had been in Syria. US and European politicians do not want to explain why, 13 years after 9/11, when the "war on terror" was supposedly launched, thousands of al-Qa'ida militants have been able to carve out enclaves so close to Europe.

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