The destructive potential of Syria's conflict is creating alarm in Washington and a bare margin of hope for diplomatic progress.
The conflict in Syria has lasted almost eighteen months, confounding the expectations of so many observers who expected Bashar al-Assad's regime to collapse well before the end of 2011. There are now ominous signs that the war is becoming entrenched, in a situation where the powerful external allies of government and rebels cannot allow their chosen side to fail.
After the Arab awakening was triggered by events in Tunisia and Egypt in December 2010-January 2011, opposition to Assad's rule manifested itself initially in a series of largely non-violent demonstrations. These were suppressed with considerable force by a regime that believed itself sufficiently secure to use the same tactics that had proved so effective in the past.
This confidence was rooted partly in the robust loyalty of key army units and a complex and multi-layered security structure, in which members of the Alawite religious minority occupied most of the important positions. The outside view of Syria as an almost entirely Alawite regime, however, tended to ignore another factor: the acquiescence in the regime by many in the country's mosaic of communities (including Christians and Sunni businesspeople).
But as the situation evolved even in its very early stages, external forces viewed the Syrian conflict through the lens of their own perceived interest. A United States-Saudi Arabia axis, with tacit support from Turkey and France, saw regime-termination as its overriding aim; while Iran, and a Russia burned by the west's role in Gaddafi's overthrow in Libya, were determined to see the regime survive. A proxy war ensued (see "Syria, the proxy war", 14 June 2012).
A turning conflict
For the year from June 2011-May 2012, the rebels slowly gained strength and the regime responded by using ever stronger force. Damascus was aided by the opposition's disunity and fragmentation, and a sense among some of Syria's religious and ethnic minorities that a post-Assad order might be much worse.
This sentiment was exacerbated by fear that Syria was becoming a magnet for dedicated young jihadi paramilitaries who had begun to see Syria as a new front in a long war. They were encouraged in turn by the actions of allies in Iraq who were intensifying their operations against Nouri al-Maliki's autocratic government.
By late June-early July 2012 there seemed growing signs - heavy fighting and high-level assassinations in Damascus, rebels in control of Aleppo - that Bashar al-Assad's regime was nearing its end. The impression partly reflected an evident rise in the supply of arms from abroad, especially via Turkey (where CIA personnel and others were trying to ensure that the destination was "good" not "bad" rebels).
This was hard to guarantee: in the field, jihadists were among the most effective of the multiple opposition militias. A skilful use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and carefully targeted attacks were particularly effective - hardly surprising since some of the young men involved had been trained in combat against western forces in Iraq (see "Syria, al-Qaida, and the future", 2 August 2012).
Now, however - around six weeks after the advances in Syria's two major cities - the regime appears to have regained control of Damascus and has constrained the rebels in Aleppo. True, many rural areas of Syria are in rebel hands (though others are Alawite and pro-government strongholds); but the reality is that Syria's capital and largest city together contain nearly half the country's population, and the rebels would need to take them to have a chance of ending the regime.
There is an ever-present possibility that the regime will implode through internal divisions. It is far more likely, though, that the stalemate will persist, perhaps for many months, with outside forces - Saudi Arabia and others arming the rebels, Iran backing Assad, Russia resisting any United Nations mandate for action - playing their part.
But there are also fissures among ostensible allies. The Saudis are still intent on seeing the Assad regime terminated, but in Washington the behind-the-scenes worries are now almost palpable. These stem from a combination of domestic politics and security issues. The domestic aspect is Barack Obama's deep wish to avoid any major crisis before presidential election on 6 November 2012 - for even if in principle an overseas military adventure might offer the incumbent an opinion-poll boost, in practice the conflict in Syria is just too uncontrollable.
The security issues are related, and twofold. The first is a steady rise of jihadist elements in Syria, with more young men entering the country each week to join the fighting. The old maxim that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" is overturned when that "friend" has clear links with al-Qaida, a now decentred (and arguably weakened) movement that, however, is getting a new lease of life in Mali, Nigeria, Iraq and elsewhere.
The second is Syria's chemical weapons, reliably reckoned to be a sizeable and dispersed arsenal including sarin (a nerve-agent) and mustard-gas (a blister-agent). Syria decided on developing a chemical-weapon arsenal to counter Israel's unique nuclear capability, a choice reinforced in the wake of Israel's destruction of so many Syrian aircraft in Lebanon in the mid-1980s. The Syrian chemical force is thus configured with Israel in mind, but that does not diminish its potential for other uses if the Assad regime seems about to disintegrate.
Those circumstances would create a real possibility of intervention by the United States and Israel. The sight of the "crusader-Zionist" alliance intervening in yet another country in the region would naturally be a welcome gift to Islamist propagandists across the middle east and beyond (see "Syria, and the cost of failure", 8 March 2012).
A diplomatic turn
For the west, then, the war is turning out very differently to the expectations even of just a few months ago, in a way that clearly presents serious risks. This makes a settlement involving some measure of compromise begin to look appealing. The regime's allies too increasingly recognise the need for compromise. Iran, for its part, may be heartened by its ability to convene a meeting of the non-aligned movement on 26-31 August 2012, not least as it brings countries such as India into the frame.
For the moment, however, rhetoric still holds sway. A particularly bad example is the demand from western sources that the experienced Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi - the successor of Kofi Annan as United Nations-Arab League envoy in Syria - should agree that the regime gives up power. Brahimi, whose willingness to assume the task of mediation is one of the very few hopeful recent indicators, is far too able to accede to a course that would stymie his mission before it starts.
If Brahimi can engineer a provisional settlement, in the process building on private concerns in Washington and other capitals, then that would create some hope of a genuine halt to Syria's descent. The best prospect now is a least-worse option, and even that could only be achieved against great odds. Without it, there is a real risk that the war in Syria could last years rather than months.