The conventional definitions of tragedy and collective misery seem to be out of place when it comes to Syria. The extent of the catastrophe there far surpasses even the most pessimistic predictions about this poor country. From the beginning of the crisis, it was the firm conviction of this blog that the violence there would dwarf anything we have ever witnessed in the Middle East. Regrettably it has, and it is NOT one of these situations when one is happy to write "we told you so."
The human suffering includes almost one third of the population which is displaced from its former places of residence, hundreds of fatalities [and I take the liberty of including in this figure those who are defined as missing], a material damage estimated in tens of billions, starvation in many parts of the country, and demolition of infrastructure to the extent that the country looks almost like it did a century ago.
2013 was the worst of the three years of the conflict, and this is so because the situation now is different than what it was in most of 2011 and the early parts of 2012.
Then, the regime still entertained the hope, turned out to be an illusion, that it could restore the situation to that of the happy days of the dictatorship, by strong-arm tactics on the one hand, and empty promises for reform, elections, and a new constitution on the other hand.
It all failed, so the regime resorted to the one last card in its possession, the use of indiscriminate violence, a war of extermination, pure and simple and so bloody, and yet the expected results are elusive.
Bashar Assad already lost the one united, stable Syria which his father worked so hard to establish. This Syria belongs to the past, in a way Syria of the Assads, portrayed as the "heart of Arabism," "the bastion of resistance to Israel," etc, proved to be yet another of the "dream palaces," which Fouad Ajami so ably described years ago, an illusion that force, more force and most possible use of force can do the trick, and create a REALLY stable state and society, in a place where people still cling to old, primordial loyalties, where sect and religion outweigh secular ideologies, as attractive as they may seem to some in the West, as unnatural and illegitimate as they are perceived in Syria, as well as in some of its neighbors.
2013 was the year when even the slimmest of chances and hopes for a realistic political solution proved unrealistic. There is simply no way in which the Alawites and Sunnis can agree on any workable formula for the future, and what makes bad things even worse is the fact that the Sunni rebels have proved unable to form a united front and the disintegration of Sunni society has become so deep that the internal civil war between various Sunni factions is almost as ferocious as that between them and the Alawite majority.
There, among the ruling Alawites as well the other minorities which support them, there is a much larger degree of internal unity than among the Sunnis, which are torn apart between different Islamic groups and also are unable to move beyond regional and local loyalties.
Sunni society in Syria has become much more fragmented in 2013 than ever before, while the minorities continue to function as they always done in times of internal predicament, they are much more united than the Sunnis, and what makes it easier for them to do it is the fact [not so much the Christians] that most of them reside in regions separated from the Sunni majority. It is no coincidence that most of the fighting takes place where there still are people from different sects living side by side. But that is going to change soon, during 2014, as the process of actual partition along sectarian/religious/ethnic lines will be completed. Ethnic refers to the existence in all but name of an autonomous Kurdish region in North-East Syria.
2013 proved also that there is no military solution to the crisis. Even a string of local successes of the Syrian army, most notably in the Qusayr-Homs region, proved insufficient. The army has simply not enough manpower to be able to occupy rebel strongholds and then to hold them. The Syrian army is considered an army of occupation by the vast majority of Sunnis, so after occupying a place there is a need to maintain some units there, and altogether there are not enough Alawites who can do it all.
So, in 2013, the regime had to appeal to its regional Sh'iite allies for help, and thousands of Iraqis and Lebanese, alongside Yemenis and of course Iranians, heeded the call, but with this dubious blessing to the regime came also the inevitable curse, as the sectarian character of the fighting became so obvious, something which solidified the resolve of the Sunnis, as fragmented as they are. The casualties sustained by the Hezbollah, as well as the Iraqi militias, have become significant; they weaken Assad's allies in Iraq and Lebanon and they triggered a mini civil war in Iraq, as well as a near one in Lebanon.
This is going to continue in 2014, perhaps even to intensify, and this is bad news, but what may prove the worst for the suffering Syrian people is the fact that the world outside of the Middle East, the US in particular, lost interest in the struggle, and with it lost the desire [if it ever really existed] to support the Syrians, not by a decisive military intervention, as well as not by increased humanitarian help.
On the other hand, the regional powers which are involved, especially Iran and its stooges, are still showing no signs of exhaustion, despite their losses. This state of affairs is a sure recipe to a continuation, in fact an intensification of the tragedy. 2014 will be a very bad year to the Syrian people.