The balance is shifting in Syria, but the outlook is still grim

The main outside players have vastly conflicting agendas

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Back at the start of Syria’s civil war, President Assad’s claims that he was fighting not his own people but foreign terrorists were rightly seen as a tyrant’s pretext for avoiding concessions to his foes. Today, almost three years on, those claims have become tragically true. Such is the growing power of al-Qa’ida in the country that, in terms of regional stability, the reviled Assad has become almost the lesser of two evils.

Next month the UN-backed “Geneva 2” conference is scheduled to begin, bringing together the regime and moderate Syrian opposition groups, with the goal of agreeing an end to the war and the establishment of a transitional government. Its chances of success seem slim, even though the opposition has dropped its demand for the departure of Assad as a precondition for its participation in the talks.

Syria is now a regional crisis, and not only do the main outside players – Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Russia and the US – have vastly conflicting agendas. The balance of power has also shifted. Gains on the ground will only strengthen Assad’s unwillingness to surrender, while the moderate opposition on the other side of the table in Geneva is sapped by having to fight a two-front war, against the regime and against the al-Qa’ida extremists now entrenched in swathes of the north and east.

Even if the conference yields a result, it will do little to avert a fresh humanitarian disaster this winter for an estimated 6 million refugees: 4 million of them inside the country, 2 million beyond its borders. The immediate priority, irrespective of the talks, must be an international effort to bring aid to refugees and set up relief corridors for civilians trapped in war zones.

Most ominous of all, whether Assad stays or goes, even a successful conference may merely mark the end of one war and the start of another, where regime and moderate opposition forces join together against al-Qa’ida. For a splintered country and its devastated people, an end to the suffering remains a distant prospect.

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