All of these factors have created a playing field tilted heavily in Assad's favor — and one that gives him little reason to bargain.
"Peace is only possible when none of the parties to the conflict think they can win. I’m not sure we are yet there in Syria," said U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres over the weekend. "I’m afraid that some might still think — and I think it’s a total illusion — that they might win that war, so I’m not optimistic about the short-term solution for the Syria crisis."
Given such pessimism, here are a few key points when considering Syria's future prospects.
The Obama administration tipped its hand early in the Syrian war when it called for regime change. Other governments in the region and the West joined the chorus, and the insistence on a "political transition" — which invariably meant Assad's ouster — became commonplace in international forums. But since Russia's 2015 military intervention on Assad's behalf, the Syrian president has gained the upper hand. His forces and allied militias control the country's key urban centers, while the constellation of rebel factions appears more divided and vulnerable than ever.
"I think what we're seeing isn't the U.N. formally abandoning transition, which would require some drastic action at the Security Council," said Aron Lund, a fellow at The Century Foundation, in an interview with Al Jazeera. "But, we are seeing the U.N. and several of the nations involved in Syria starting to de-emphasize and circumvent the regime change content of those early resolutions by shifting the debate to topics that are not directly connected to Assad staying or going."
"As his negotiators are talking in Geneva, the Syrian regime and its backers are creating faits accomplis on the ground through bombings, sieges, and sectarian re-engineering of regime-controlled areas," wrote Randa Slim of the Middle East Institute, in an emailed memo. "Assad still talks of regaining control over every inch of the Syrian territory. However, his manpower shortage and his allies' lukewarm support for his grandiose plans will eventually force him to live with a 'useful' and pliant Syria that can stay under his control for the foreseeable future."
The myriad rebel groups, divided in various ways by their politics, class and creeds, have found it impossible to present a united front in Geneva, let alone on the battlefield in Syria. At present, a deadly conflagration looms in Syria's northwestern Idlib province, the most significant rebel stronghold left in the country. Rebel factions backed by the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey say their aid has been cut off in recent weeks and that they are now at the mercy of jihadist groups in their midst. Some have been compelled to ally with a powerful al-Qaeda affiliate or a rival jihadist outfit, Ahrar al-Sham.
“Al-Qaeda is eating us,” said Zakaria Malahifji, an official with the U.S. backed Fastaqim rebel group, explaining to the Post's Liz Sly about his group's union with Ahrar al-Sham. "It’s a military alliance only, for protection from Al-Qaeda. Politically, we don’t share their views."
Sly adds: "Around a dozen U.S.-backed groups are still holding out against the pressure to align with the extremists, but they acknowledge their cause is increasingly hopeless." Indeed, some rebels have chosen to give up arms in accordance with local ceasefires in parts of the country, choosing reintegration over continuing the fight.
Trump is focused on the Islamic State
Meanwhile, the Trump administration is in the midst of revamping Washington's approach to Syria. It isn't yet clear how different that approach will be from that of the Obama administration, which, while indirectly pushing for Assad's defeat, focused much more on the jihadists of the Islamic State. Key on the agenda now is the long-awaited offensive on Raqqa, the eastern Syrian city that is the self-proclaimed capital of the Islamic State.
As my colleague Karen DeYoung reports, the Trump administration may be contemplating a larger commitment of troops on the ground to speed the battle. It may also reconsider the Obama administration's backing of Syrian Kurdish fighters as the main U.S. proxy in the offensive. Instead, it may craft a plan for Raqqa in closer coordination with Turkey, which is bitterly opposed to these Kurdish units.
Whatever materializes, it isn't particularly encouraging for Syrians caught between the jihadists and a brutal, repressive regime. Trump disapproved of Obama's arming of the "moderate opposition," and his administration seems to have few qualms with Assad remaining in power.
"God help the Syrian people if we are waiting for Donald Trump to provide the solution," said Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, over the weekend. "It is incumbent on all of us to step forward while the U.S. is in disarray." But right now, only Russia and Assad are doing so.