Fourth Year Of Syrian War Unlikely To Bring Relief From Bloodshed

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 13 :  Activists hold red balloons and signs during the 'With Syria' campaign to mark the third anniver
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 13 : Activists hold red balloons and signs during the 'With Syria' campaign to mark the third anniversary of the start of the Syrian conflict at Roosevelt Island's FDR Four Freedoms Park in New York City, on March 13, 2014. Activicts around the world take part in the 'With Syria' campaign to mark the third anniversary of the devastating civil war and call for an end of the conflict in Syria. (Photo by Bilgin Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

BEIRUT -- As the Syrian civil war marks its third anniversary on Saturday, observers of the conflict say the fourth year of war will likely bring more of the same: widespread violence with inconclusive results.

The country has had to contend with a rise of hardline Islamist rebel groups linked to al-Qaeda, the regime’s use of starvation and indiscriminate “barrel-bomb” campaigns to defeat the rebels, and the scattering of hundreds of thousands of refugees into neighboring countries. Despite rallies in Washington this week and pleas from world leaders and aid groups to end the conflict, the coming year promises little relief.

"I wouldn't say there's likely to be radical change on either side," said Phillip Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland who studies Hezbollah and the civil war.

On the battlefield itself, Syrian troops and their allies have made steady gains in recent months. As rebel units plunged further into internal disputes, the regime moved to retake a vital swath of western Syria, from the Damascus region in the south running along the Lebanese border to the Mediterranean coast. Full control of that belt, which holds most of Syria's major urban centers, might allow the Syrian regime to claim the upper hand in the war.

"The government is undoubtedly the party in this conflict who's got the real momentum behind it," said Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center and prominent Syria analyst.

In contrast, opposition fighters have been plagued by months of infighting. The extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria continues to fight against Jabhat al-Nusra, the official al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, and other religiously motivated rebel groups. And the Supreme Military Council, the moderate body on which the United States has pinned its military hopes in Syria, unexpectedly fired its leader, Gen. Salim Idriss, last month and replaced him with another commander.

"The rebels are in complete disarray and have proven themselves incapable of unifying their ranks in any meaningful way," said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

Such confusion, he said, has prevented allies like the United States and Saudi Arabia from providing the weapons and supplies the opposition needs. Without this help, the rebels have little hope of defeating the Syrian army outright or reversing the regime's recent gains.

But while the regime by all accounts appears to have the upper hand, analysts say it is far from a decisive win. A small core of loyal, elite units have been fighting continuously for two years and are in need of rest and refitting, Smyth said.

On Wednesday, Syrian President Bashar al Assad visited the Damascus suburb of Adra in one of just a handful of public appearances he has made throughout the civil war. But Smyth cautioned that Assad's visit was not a clear-cut sign of regime dominance.

"There's been fighting there for months. Months. It's been non-stop," he said.

While the regime is attempting to project strength and a sense of momentum in the war, Smyth argued that the Syrian army and its allies still have much fighting to do before they can consolidate their gains.

"There's still huge chunks in the Damascus area that still need to be secured by the government in order to really secure their presence," he said.

Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, argued that the regime's ample support from Iran, Russia and Hezbollah is actually a sign that Assad is in a precarious position.

"It's a measure of his weakness, not his strength," Khouri said. "He can only do this with these external players and the Russians blocking the U.S. at the U.N."

If Russia, Iran and Hezbollah see other ways to protect their interests, Khouri said, they would likely move to strike a deal with Assad's opponents and end the war. But he added that there is no likely scenario -- other than a defeat by the rebels -- that would force Syria's allies to the negotiating table.

Efforts at peace talks have so far been ineffective. Earlier this year, the Syrian government and opposition met in Switzerland for two rounds of peace talks sponsored by the United States and Russia. But they were unable to forge an agreement on even small confidence-building measures, and the second round broke up without any new dates set for a third session.

Assad now appears to be firming up plans to run for re-election in July, defying calls for his removal by the opposition, the United States and its allies. One of the key demands of the peace talks was the end of Assad's rule, but the regime's negotiating team rejected any discussion that involved the Syrian president stepping down.

Analysts say there is little hope that the peace process will continue any time soon, particularly with the United States and Russia now deadlocked over the crisis in Ukraine. And with both sides determined to continue fighting on the battlefield, the prospects of ending the war in its fourth year appear slim.

"Looking forward," Lister said, "I think this conflict will last for a long time yet."