The wholesale destruction created across much of Syria by three years of conflict continues, with little relief for its desperate and often displaced people. The United Nations estimates that half the entire population of the country needs help; its secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, in advance of a donors' conference in Kuwait, is seeking $6.5 billion in further aid.
Amid the disarray on the ground, the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus is attempting to press its advantage via a dual strategy—militarily, principally through regular air attacks on opposition-held areas, and diplomatically, by appearing ready to join the talks in Geneva scheduled to start on 22 January 2014.
The 'war within a war' between rebel factions is also intensifying, especially in the country's north. There, around 500 people are reported to have been killed in fighting between the ISIL jihadist group and more secular forces drawn from the disorganised elements that make up the Free Syrian Army (FSA) (see Anne Barnard, 'Syrian factions target group linked to Qaeda', New York Times, 14 January 2014).
ISIL has faced setbacks on several fronts, not least in the Iraqi city of Fallujah. But the jihadists' capabilities in Iraq are far from diminished overall, as indicated by the continution of their relentless armed campaign. On January 15 alone, seven car bombs exploded in Baghdad, killing 28 people and injuring many more, and and an attack on a funeral near Baquba, capital of Diyala province, killed 18 people.
The latter was perhaps even more significant, for reasons both of geography and strategy. The operation was a fair distance from Anbar province, where Falluja and Ramadi have been at the centre of most of the recent violence, and it targeted not Shi’a communities, nor government security forces or offices, but mourners at the funeral of a pro-government Sunni militiaman. Thus it can be seen as a clear attempt to retaliate against anti-jihadist elements within the wider Sunni population.
The western dilemma
In both Syria and Iraq, the rise of more extreme Islamist groups has been met with consternation in western capitals, notably Washington. Yet this trend is itself the result of a long evolution and needs to be put in the context of political developments since 2011. In Syria, for example, the protests that erupted nearly three years ago—in the wake of the extraordinary changes in Tunisia and Egypt—were at the start exclusively non-violent.
At the time, young people were gathering after Friday prayers to denounce local examples of repression by the security agencies. Their dissent was met with considerable force by the Assad regime, and within a few months peaceful dissent was morphing into more violent resistance. Even as this transition got underway, Damascus was claiming that it was facing a challenge from extreme jihadist elements. In its view these were terrorists, pure and simple: the description became a mantra that was repeated at every opportunity.
Most western politicians dismissed this view, but it proved a self-fulfilling prophecy: as the violence escalated, so a more extreme element of jihadism did indeed take root among the rebels. By early 2013 a number of groups, with the al-Nusra front to the fore, were achieving prominence in the rebellion. They were often supported by finance from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, even if this was denied by the governments concerned.
For the Saudis in particular, the anti-Assad war is a key instrument in preventing the emergence of the much-feared 'Shi’a crescent'—an arc of influence stretching from the Mediterranean through Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran to the Indian Ocean. The equivalent nightmare for the United States and its partners is the rise of al-Qaida-linked groups in Syria and Iraq; the fact that these groups exert a magnetic attraction over young men from across the region, not least Tunisia, is a deep worry (see 'Al-Qaida's idea, three years on', 2 January 2014). British and other security agencies report an increase in the numbers of dedicated young would-be paramilitaries seeking to travel to Syria to join the fight, closely echoing the fears expressed at the height of the Iraq war in 2006.
This leaves western governments with a dilemma they never expected to meet: a new embedding of the al-Qaida vision at the heart of the middle east, with no quick prospect of eroding it. This is one reason why the US secretary of state, John Kerry, and his partners are pressing the FSA and its civilian counterparts to join the Geneva talks and why influential people around Washington are arguing that the US should accept that that its national interest lies in ensuring Assad’s survival in some form.
The claim on January 14 by Syria's deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, that western intelligence officials had recently visited Damascus may sound like propaganda but the BBC’s highly experienced Lyse Doucet reports that 'informed sources had confirmed meetings between western and Syrian intelligence officers'.
The wild card
Several recent columns in this series have noted improving links between Russia and the US on the Syrian issue. In part the reasons lie in Russia's greater willingness to cooperate in scaling down the war in Syria, as fears take hold that the Caucasus Emirate group could mount an attack at Sochi's winter Olympics in February 2014. This, along with the US's improving relations with Iran, can be accounted a rare piece of positive news in the Syrian disaster.
Such a coalescence of interest might encourage optimism, were it not for the influence of Saudi Arabia in this complex situation. At root, Riyadh remains deeply suspicious of Iran, even under the more moderate leadership of the new president Hassan Rowhani; it is dismayed at Barack Obama’s willingness to take him at face value, and simultaneously doesn't believe he will last. On Syria itself, the Saudis are wholly opposed to any idea that Assad be allowed to stay in power and are prepared to offer more support for the Islamist paramilitaries in Syria (and quite possibly Iraq as well) if there is any sign of this notion taking root.
To many in the international community, the gathering in Geneva on 22 January 2014 may look promising. The Syrian regime may talk to some of its enemies; the Russians and Americans may try to make progress; even Iran will not stand in the way. But the leadership in Riyadh is adamant that Bashar al-Assad must go. That question remains to be addressed; to evade it would risk missing the slim but real possibility of peace that has now arisen. If the ingredients of a settlement fail to align now, the prospect is of even more bitter and destructive war in Syria.