Omm Ahmed, a refugee from Daraa, Syria, carries her infant near her tent at Zaatari Refugee Camp in Mafraq, Jordan, on Sunday. Syrian civilians have borne the greatest brunt of the conflict in their country.
Omm Ahmed, a refugee from Daraa, Syria, carries her infant near her tent at Zaatari Refugee Camp in Mafraq, Jordan, on Sunday. Syrian civilians have borne the greatest brunt of the conflict in their country. Mohammad Hannon/AP
The conflict in Syria is now nearly a year and a half old, and there appears to be no end in sight.
August was the deadliest month yet, with thousands of people, mostly civilians, killed in fighting around the country. While anti-government rebels are making advances, government troops are digging in their heels.
It started as a protest movement. Now, analysts in the U.S. and the region agree, the conflict in Syria is a civil war.
A Civil War
Even Syrian President Bashar Assad came close to acknowledging as much in a speech last week.
"Our armed forces are achieving big success," Assad said on a pro-government TV channel owned by his cousin. "But this conflict will take some time to be resolved."
In the past, Assad has downplayed efforts to oust him as conspiracies by terrorists sponsored by the U.S. and Israel. This latest speech was a rare acknowledgement that not only is he fighting for his survival, but that it might not come too easily.
Assad's regime has suffered major blows over the summer. First, there was the attack in July on a meeting of his inner circle that killed at least three officials, including his brother in law, the deputy defense minister. Then, other high-ranking officials like ambassadors and generals — even the prime minister — defected.
All this while rebel fighters known as the Free Syrian Army gained ground. They now basically control a swath of territory in Syria's north, and last month were able to launch an offensive on Syria's largest city, Aleppo.
Assad's Army In Trouble
Jeffrey White, a defense analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East policy, says it is clear Assad's army is in trouble. He says when the army does go on the offensive, it does so from a distance, with artillery, tanks, helicopters or fighter planes, so conscripted soldiers won't come face-to-face with their own countrymen.
Killing civilians might force them to defect, says White, who recently spent time with the rebels in Turkey, near the Syrian border.
White says it is clear Assad's army is in trouble. But he says there is still a hard core of soldiers loyal to the regime who are willing to kill civilians.
"One thing they've done is they have tried to break the connection between the Syrian people and the rebels," he says. "That is they inflict maximum damage — violence — against any town or area that supports the rebels.
"And I believe the regime thinks that if they can break that connection, if they can get the people to reject the Free Syrian Army, then they can win the war."
A Rebel Miscalculation
Emile Hokayem, a Middle East analyst for the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, says he agrees that the longer the fight goes on, the stronger the regime's loyal core gets.
That's a problem for the rebels, who, Hokayem says, still lack a national strategy. Until now, the rebels were fighting small, local wars of attrition, poking at regime checkpoints and supply lines in villages and towns around the country, and lately, seizing the regime's own anti-aircraft weapons to take down helicopters and planes.
The decision to enter Aleppo last month was ad hoc, Hokayem says, and a bad one. The rebels still don't control the city. He says that's because the rebels didn't secure the political support of minority groups in Aleppo who until now have supported the regime.
"Until they manage to formulate a series of slogans or political platforms that is appealing to all the social, ethnic, sectarian groups, they're not going to decisively win that war," he says.
'Counting Our Dead'
All the while, it's the Syrian people who suffer the consequences of a grinding conflict where neither side is poised to win.
Hundreds of people are dying every day, and the vibrant community of Syrian activists who once organized protests are now occupied with handing out food and bandages, says activist Osama Nassar, who was reached by Skype.
"We have thousands of people who need shelter, who need to be fed, who need medical care, they need every kind of humanitarian relief," he says.
Nassar is from the town of Daraya, just outside Syria's capital, Damascus. It was the heart of nonviolent protest until last month, when reports began emerging of a massacre. Residents say government troops killed more than 400 people, a retaliation for harboring anti-government rebels.
Nassar says the town's dream of becoming an example for a new, free Syria, has been shattered.
"At the end of the day, we have Syrian people shooting other Syrian people," he says. "No side is able to overcome the other side. So we are losing our innocent people, we are losing our country, and that's it."
I asked Nassar what the activists think should happen next.
"It's hard to talk about our hopes and dreams," he said, "when we are still counting our dead."