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Syria’s Balance of Terror

LONDON – As the civil war in Syria nears the six-year mark, the mounting death toll and constantly shifting military landscape is making a mockery of the diplomatic track. With yet another round of talks on the horizon – new United Nations-led discussions are scheduled to begin this week in Geneva – it’s worth asking why the conflict has been so intractable.

Syria’s violence might have ended years ago had it not been for meddling by some of the very players now pushing hardest for a truce. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, conceded as much when he said in January that Damascus was 2-3 weeks from falling before Moscow intervened. Had rebels taken the Syrian capital, one of their key demands – the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad – would very likely have been met.

But it was not to be. Unlike in Libya, where French-led NATO action saved the revolution in March 2011, Iranian and Russian interventions in Syria – bolstered by armed non-state actors (both Sunni and Shia) from Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan – have saved the government.

That said, Assad’s army – which had 325,000 soldiers in 2010 – has suffered more than 100,000 fatalities, a similar number of injuries, and tens of thousands of defections. By relying on some 110,000 foreign state and non-state actors to maintain a hold on the small portion of Syria that he still controls, Assad’s regime is much like his military: a shadow of what it once was.