MADRID – Syria is a blood-soaked shambles. Four years of civil war have left more than 200,000 dead, one million wounded, and 6.7 million people internally displaced. Another 3.8 million are living as refugees outside the country, and 13 million (out of a pre-war population of 20 million) are in need of humanitarian assistance. Two illustrious United Nations special envoys – Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi – have resigned in the face of Syria's self-perpetuating spiral of violence.
But, against this bleak background, there is reason for cautious optimism. Kurdish forces recently succeeded, after months of heavy fighting, in expelling the Islamic State from the border town of Kobane. Moreover, the new UN envoy, Staffan de Mistura, has initiated a pragmatic and determined “Aleppo first" strategy, which aims to freeze military operations in the shattered city and facilitate the entry of aid. Could this mark a turning point for Syria?
When the crisis in Syria erupted, nobody predicted how serious, protracted, and complex it would turn out to be. For starters, observers underestimated citizens' ever-deepening sense of hopelessness, which has driven them to support jihadi groups or the Assad regime.
The conflict is also unique in its asymmetry, stemming from the numerous and disparate actors involved. There are only two conventional armies: the Kurdish fighters and the forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. The opposition comprises factions dependent on foreign sponsors. Indeed, the “nationalist" opposition is merely an assortment of factions responsible for protecting small territories, and the “Free Syrian Army" is little more than a fantasy. The stark reality is that the best-organized groups are the jihadists: the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Islamic Front.