Syria strains as war of attrition rages
By Victor Kotsev
The Syrian civil war is a foreign-assisted race to the bottom in all possible ways - in military, economic, and moral terms. The latest UN statistics claim that almost 70,000 have died in less than two years, and despite several recent peace initiatives, there is no end in sight to the carnage.
In most places, including the capital Damascus, the battles for victory have evolved into a war of attrition. Despite significant rebel advances in the last weeks and months - including the capture of a major air force base in Aleppo and the largest dam in the
country - the conflict has stalemated and right now it looks as if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may be able to cling to power far longer than most Western officials and media outlets acknowledge.
Still, in the end he is likely doomed, but not so much because he stands to collapse rapidly in the manner in which Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi did in 2011. Instead, as experts note, "regime troops can't easily be replaced, as compared to rebels, who are drawing on a larger pool of willing fighters, from Syria and abroad".  Recently, the regime has reportedly resorted to filling its ranks with women fighters in order to be able to keep up. 
Economically, the rebel advances are as much a curse for them as they are a blessing. Opposition economists estimate that Assad would go broke any time in the next month or two, and this would lead to a military collapse,  but even if these statistics are correct, they fail to address the rebels' own cash problems. An opposition spokesman admitted that "it will cost about $500 million a month for us to administer freed areas, just to keep things afloat," and that money was in short supply. Other reports describe the conditions in which many rebels fight - one meal per day, if that, and not even enough bullets to fight the regime.
Morally, Assad's forces have clearly committed unspeakable atrocities, but so have the Western-backed rebels. "The problem is us," a young rebel in Aleppo shouted during a meeting where a Guardian reporter was present. "We have battalions sitting in liberated areas who man checkpoints and detain people…. They have become worse than the regime." 
Meanwhile, the presence of al-Qaeda in the rebel ranks is hardly a secret to anybody, and their fighters are often prized as the best force of the opposition. Abundant reports that "they do whatever they want with the Alawites" strengthen fears that "the world's next genocide" will be directed against the long-persecuted religious minority to which the Syrian president and his top men belong. 
According to a report in the London Review of Books, the rebels embroiled themselves in a complex regional conspiracy by enlisting the help of Sunni Lebanese strongman Saad al-Hariri, in order to woo Saudi Arabia to pressure the United States into allowing Turkey to transfer heavy weapons to them. The scheme, however, backfired and the main beneficiaries ended up being the Islamic extremists. 
At the same time, the United States and Iran are apparently playing a game of patience while hundreds of civilians are dying every day and thousands are being displaced. The influential intelligence-analysis firm Stratfor admitted that a main American objective in Syria is to weaken Iran without being drawn itself into an Iraq-like quagmire where the Iranians "can play a potent spoiler role".  A number of Syrian rebels told Newsweek recently that the CIA betrayed its promises to them time and again and that "they just want to balance the power of the regime," thus prolonging the civil war. 
Iran, for its part is reportedly building a network of Shi'ite and other minority militias in order to be able to keep up the fight even after the Assad regime falls. Recently - especially after the death of a high-ranking Iranian general in Syria early this month - the Lebanese Shiite militant organization Hezbollah, a close Iranian ally, is also believed to have stepped up its involvement in Syria, fighting pitched battles with rebel forces near the city of Homs.
Other world powers (the Gulf states, Turkey and much of Europe, on one side, and Russia and China on the other) are fully complacent in this game of death, and are supplying either the opposition or the regime with weapons. Russia just quietly conducted "the largest [naval] exercise since the dissolution of the Soviet Union" in the waters off of Syria, in what a top Israeli analyst called "an effort at deterrence in the Syrian theater, as well as a general demonstration of force". 
Thus the main effort to stop the bloodshed comes not in the form of overt diplomacy by the leading world powers, but from secret negotiations conducted by a few dedicated peace builders. A prominent peace researcher told me recently that a number of these initiatives were aimed at guaranteeing Alawite safety in case Assad quits. This would make a lot of sense even if it turns out to be a herculean task: according to the well-connected Russian analyst Fyodor Lukyanov, Assad's supporters would kill him themselves if he tried to depart now and leave them to suffer the revenge of the rebels. 
We can interpret recent conciliatory statements by both rebel and government officials as a sign that there is some progress in these negotiations. Once such secret talks advance to a certain point, the negotiators often demand token signs of good will from both sides, as a first step to de-escalating the militant rhetoric they have adopted.
"Token" may be the best word to describe the gestures so far. In the last week or so, the Syrian regime called for "unconditional" dialogue, while rebel leader Sheikh Moaz Alkhatib offered to meet Assad's Sunni deputy on condition that the government releases 160,000 alleged political prisoners (most likely an exaggerated figure) and renews the passports of Syrian exiles. In due time, facing pressure from fellow rebels, Alkhatib backtracked and clarified that his offer would necessitate Assad's departure as well. It is hard to imagine that these differences are easily bridgeable.
Nevertheless, these baby steps also indicate that both sides have lost hope for a swift victory. This is a propitious situation for negotiations: as Jeffrey Feltman, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, put it in an interview with Reuters, "Perhaps there is now a slight opening, perhaps that locked door to negotiations is starting to be unlocked."
Still, if the major world powers continue to play the role of spoilers, the opening will close and the bloodshed is practically guaranteed to continue.