BEIRUT -- From a safe distance, the latest battle for Raqqa, a provincial capital in northern Syria, might have seemed like a turning point in the war to end the rule of President Bashar al-Assad.
Early this year, after two weeks of bloody combat, one of Syria's most prominent rebel groups recaptured the strategically significant city. It was a substantial blow to its enemies.
But the rebel group that secured Raqqa was the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, an extremist organization linked to al-Qaeda. The enemies it defeated were not connected to the Syrian army: ISIS had routed its fellow rebel militias, in effect strengthening Assad’s hand.
Three years after the wave of anti-authoritarian uprisings known as the Arab Spring, the Syrian revolution bears little resemblance to the ambitious popular movement that launched it. Protests have given way to a brutal, protracted war mixing regional power struggles and sectarian hatred. Even after the deaths of at least 100,000 people and the displacement of more than two million, Syria’s civil war appears to be at a stalemate, with more hostilities the most likely future.
Assad still rules over a large swath of the country. The rebels fighting to topple him are riven by internal battles. Communities of Syrian refugees now scattered throughout the Middle East grow larger and more established by the day, with the seeming permanence of these settlements symbolic of a grinding war that shows no sign of ending.
"I thought by now the regime would be on its last leg," said Nabeel Khoury, a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, who was serving in the U.S. State Department's intelligence office when the Syrian war began. "I thought, one way or another, somebody would end it. I didn't expect ... to be where we are today."
Even with peace talks set to convene this week in Switzerland, few expect significant progress. The list of attendees was only settled after last-minute jockeying that kept the opposition leaders at the conference but excluded Iran, Syria's most important backer. The opposition and the regime remain divided over fundamental points of the agreement that brought them to the table, and many important rebel groups reject the peace talks entirely, saying they will end the war on the battlefield.
How did Syria’s share of the Arab Spring, the initial popular revolt against Assad, yield an intractable war with no end in sight? The state of play speaks to the contrasting objectives of the rebels competing to control Syria, the volatile interests of the outside powers whose support they seek, the ferocity with which a long-time dictator clings to power, and the combustible mix of civil war fused with Islamist vision.
From the beginning of the conflict, Syrian rebels lacked unity and a clear command structure. Fighters banded on their own into a wide range of units, and many soldiers were untrained and lacked weapons appropriate for fighting the Syrian army with its tanks and heavy weaponry.
In a bid to secure weapons, rebels appealed first to the United States and other Western countries. In 2011 and 2012, they still held out hope that the West would intervene in Syria. Many rebel units branded themselves moderates to make themselves palatable to outside powers that might be inclined to help. While the United States provided no weapons and relatively little in the way of other aid, the nominally secular, American-backed Free Syrian Army became the dominant player on the battlefield.
But as the war continued into 2013, no intervention came. Rather than American warplanes or soldiers, foreign jihadis entered the battlefield in increasing numbers, drawn from other Arab nations and as far away as Europe and the United States. Within the loose confederation of rebels, dominance passed from the Free Syrian Army to hardline Islamist groups like ISIS and the mostly Syrian Jabhat al-Nusra, both of which claim to represent al-Qaeda in Syria.
For a moment last fall, intervention appeared in the offing. Reports emerged that Assad had unleashed chemical weapons against civilians in the suburbs of Damascus. U.S. President Barack Obama sought to punish the regime, readying air strikes. But he was ultimately hampered by popular disapproval, congressional opposition and a shortage of allies. In the end, Obama assented to a Russian-brokered deal in which the Syrian government would destroy its chemical weapons under international supervision.
The triumph of international diplomacy over military intervention convinced many rebels that Washington would never provide the support they needed. With only a trickle of supplies now coming from the West, rebel units turned their attention to wooing cash from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf nations, emphasizing their Islamist character to attract support. Major rebel brigades began banding together under names like the Islamic Front and the Army of Islam.
Some of the worst fighting in Syria today is among these competing Islamist groups. At the top of the list is ISIS, which has earned a reputation as a brutal and uncompromising force. As it ruled Raqqa for much of last year, ISIS imposed a strict interpretation of Shariah law, including whippings and executions -- sometimes even beheadings -- infuriating residents.
The group also attempted to dominate other rebels, dismissing even fellow Islamists as insufficiently strict. In the last months of 2013, tensions between rebel units flared into occasional attacks on each other's forces, and then finally erupted into the open warfare of this month.
Today, ISIS again holds Raqqa, having beaten back territorial gains by its rivals in the city and elsewhere in the north. But its victories have created a patchwork of competing zones and checkpoints across rebel territory as Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic Front and other groups attempt to regain some control.
"It's not clear who is winning,” one Syrian fleeing the violence told the Guardian recently. “It's not even clear who is fighting."
If there is any apparent winner in the internal struggles of the rebels, it is Assad. Battles between ISIS and its rivals leave the opposition vulnerable on several fronts.
Unlike the rebels, the Syrian government has clear and stable supply lines from its allies. While Iran provides weapons, advisers and diplomatic support, fighters from Hezbollah bolster the Syrian army's ranks. The rebels, weak in comparison, cannot afford to waste bullets or bodies against each other.
The fighting also opens up opportunities for the regime to exploit its enemies as they contend with one another. During the battle for Raqqa, one activist suggested to Reuters that the regime held off bombing areas of the city where ISIS was advancing, allowing the group to kill as many fellow rebels as possible. And as fighting in Raqqa died down, the Syrian army began advancing on Aleppo, once Syria's biggest city and a vital gateway to the country's rebel-held areas.
Such a threat offers the possibility that all of ISIS' rivals, Islamist and secular, may finally come together to fight both the regime and the radical group. But unity would be a rare feat for the rebels, who have frequently rejected reaching across ideological lines.
And even if they do, suggested Philip Smyth, who researches Hezbollah at the University of Maryland, it may still give the Syrian government a chance to promote its self-image as the country's only credible force against radical Islam.
"I think it doesn't really matter what happens on the ground between the rebels," he said. "Assad and his Iranian-backed forces are going to push a narrative that says they're fighting al-Qaeda."
The prospects for peace seem just as remote at the negotiating table as they do on the battlefield.
In the summer of 2012, the U.N.-backed Action Group for Syria, a body of major international powers and Arab states, held a conference in Geneva to hammer out the terms for a future peace deal. The resulting communiqué called for Syrian government representatives and the opposition to come to a mutual agreement on a "transitional government body with full executive powers" that would lead Syria.
Under the communiqué, all parties had to agree to the conditions before talks could begin. But from the minute that a peace conference was finally announced in November, agreement on virtually anything has proved unreachable.
The Syrian National Coalition, the Western-backed group that serves as the formal opposition leadership, interprets the communiqué as a clear break from the Assad regime. It has repeatedly said that any "transitional government body" cannot include Assad, while the regime itself considers that demand a non-starter. Playing on fears about radical groups like ISIS, the regime has also pushed for the conference to focus on fighting "terrorism," a term it uses to describe the uprising as a whole. "This is the most important decision or result that the Geneva Conference could produce," Assad told the Agence France-Presse on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, many rebels and activists on the ground in Syria consider the SNC a figurehead with no legitimacy or right to negotiate for them. To those groups, any negotiation with the Assad regime would be a betrayal; the commander of Ahrar al-Sham, one of the largest rebel units, tweeted recently that the Geneva conference is the "savior of the regime." And with the talks announced just days after the United States agreed to a nuclear deal with Iran, some also believed they were being sold out for larger diplomatic goals. Such perceptions were fueled by renewed Iranian demands for a seat at the table, backed by Russian support.
On the eve of the talks, those disagreements were as strong as ever. While the SNC voted on Saturday to participate in the conference, the decision was taken without a significant chunk of the group's membership: 44 of 119 the coalition's members refused to vote. And when the United Nations invited Iran to the talks on Sunday, the SNC promptly withdrew in protest, saying it would not attend the peace conference unless Iran agreed to the terms of the communiqué or the U.N. canceled Iran's invitation.
The uproar forced the U.N. to do just that. A spokesman for Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the U.N. leader was "deeply disappointed" in Iran's refusal to publicly back the communiqué, a criticism echoed by the United States. The SNC announced its return to the talks, finally giving the conference the green light to proceed.
But while the talks move forward, the exclusion of Iran also means that a crucial player in the war will not be present. "Iran, not Russia, is the key to Syria," said Nabeel Khoury, the former State Department official. Though the Iranian government has provided important military support to Syria, he said, it is also perhaps the only power that can dictate terms to Assad. "If Iran is convinced that it would be in its interests to reach a resolution, they can definitely help make it so."
Even as the talks were first announced in November, President Obama and other world leaders acknowledged that getting all of the players to the table would be a long process. But with divisions unsolved and aims unclear, the talks are widely considered dead on arrival. "The official talks are almost surely going to fail," Khoury said.
And while rebel groups and the regime fight within Syria and through diplomatic channels, the refugee crisis caused by the war continues to swell.
"It's hard to actually describe in words the level of damage and destruction that has happened," said Nadim Houry, director of the Beirut office of Human Rights Watch.
In Turkey and Jordan, massive refugee camps have become seemingly permanent fixtures along the borders with Syria. In Lebanon, at least 800,000 Syrians -- plus an unknown number of unregistered refugees -- now make up nearly 25 percent of the tiny country's population. The Lebanese government denies the Syrians official permission to live or work in the country. But unlike in Turkey or Jordan, the government also refuses to build camps to house the massive influx of refugees, wary of making them a permanent part of Lebanese life.
Instead, Syrians live wherever they can afford. Some are wealthy or had family members working in Lebanon before the civil war, making adjustment easier. But as weeks of exile have become months or years, Houry said that available evidence suggests that conditions are growing ever tougher.
"It's anecdotal, but all the anecdotes go in one direction, which is yes, it's getting worse," he said.
Those problems include not just dwindling cash or limited shelter. There is also growing resentment from Lebanese citizens, whose governments are taxed by the surge of new arrivals. In December, locals in eastern Lebanon accused Syrian refugees of molesting a Lebanese boy with a disability. In retaliation, they attacked a homemade camp housing Syrians, setting fire to tents and threatening the refugees. The refugees said the accusation was an excuse to try and chase them off land owned by a local family.
As conditions worsen and more refugees flee Syria, their cause has attracted international attention but seemingly little possibility of relieving their situation. Most European countries have only accepted token numbers of asylum seekers, and even other Middle Eastern countries have been reluctant to take in Syrians. The path of unauthorized immigration out of the Middle East is long and dangerous.
And for those who stay in places like Jordan or Lebanon, there seems to be little prospect of going home any time soon. If they did return to Syria, many would likely find destroyed towns and, given the sectarian tone of the war, tense homecomings in changed neighborhoods. For now, the refugees can only wait while the conflict, in all of its dimensions, drags on.
No one knows how long that might last. Experts who spoke to The WorldPost speculated in terms of years, many noting that the Lebanese civil war lasted 15 years before international pressure forced its end.
With Syria's war having already spilled into Lebanon and Iraq, Houry warned that such a timeframe could mean even greater disaster.
"I keep thinking," he said, "if Syria goes on like this for 10 years? Smack in the middle of the Middle East, of that sort of chaos? Frankly, it's a vision of hell for the whole region."