Even by Syrian war standards, this was a brutal week.
By the end of it, reports had surfaced of a poison gas attack in the central Syrian town of Kafr Zeita. One hundred people were left sick from exposure; the Syrian regime and rebel forces blamed each other for the incident. In weeks past, Syrian doctors told us of repeated small-scale chemical attacks around Damascus – a signal that the chemical destruction plan brokered by the U.S. and Russia last year hasn’t stopped the use of chemical weapons on the battlefield.
Then there are the more conventional forms of destruction, which seem to be accelerating in pace. On Wednesday two car bombs struck an Alawite neighborhood of Homs , killing at least 25 people. Rebels are advancing on government-held areas of Aleppo , Al Jazeera reports, while the Los Angeles Times profiled the practically apocalyptic scenes of life for Aleppines, struggling to get by in a once-prosperous city.
In the oil-rich eastern region of Deir Ezzor, near the Iraqi-Syrian border, rebel infighting has spiked and killed at least 68 people this week. The subtext of that battle is the rivalry between two hardline Islamist groups: al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra and its allies on one side, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria on the other. In other words, a group linked to al-Qaida fighting against a group so extreme that it broke away from al-Qaida – both contending for control of oil resources and the porous Iraqi border.
On the other side of the country, along Syria’s border with Lebanon, the Syrian army is gaining ground and momentum. As part of a drawn-out battle, President Bashar al-Assad and his allies in Hezbollah have been strategically clearing the Qalamoun region of rebel influence, working towards the goal of uninterrupted control of southwestern Syria. The crucial Damascus is in Assad’s hands and in the midst of a fragile calm, the result of localized cease-fires in the city’s suburbs , negotiated to the regime’s advantage.
Hezbollah sounded confident this week, describing the situation as a war of attrition that no longer posed an existential threat to the regime. Assad’s government affirmed plans to hold presidential elections by July, most likely paving the way for another seven years of his rule. He plans on “fighting rebels to a standstill,” one of the group’s top officials told Reuters. Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, pointed to Western and regional countries losing resolve in backing the opposition. On that point, Nasrallah and the rebels practically agree.
“The [Western] aid that comes in now is only enough to keep us alive, and it covers only the lowest level of needs,” one Syrian rebel, a defected fighter pilot, told the New York Times. From a base of operations in Jordan, he makes use of the relatively low-level support the U.S. and its allies are willing to provide.
“They call it aid, but I don’t consider it aid,” he said. “I consider it buying time and giving people the illusion that there is aid when really there is not.”
That reality led to what Yezid Sayigh of the Carnegie Middle East Center calls A Melancholy Perspective on Syria.
“The prospects that a viable new diplomatic framework will emerge to calm the situation are now more remote than ever,” he laments.
“The regime remains far from achieving an all-out military victory, and it may never do so. But if present trends continue – and there really is little to suggest they will not – then the regime will be in a dominant position and in effective control of a critical mass of the country by the end of 2015, if not sooner.”
The humanitarian fallout has become familiar: regional refugees and misery for the internally displaced. But new symptoms are always emerging. This week we covered the tens of thousands of stateless Syrian babies, born as undocumented refugees. As Yezid Sayigh points out, they face a wall of donor fatigue; the last U.N. appeal for $6.54 billion in aid only garnered $1.57 billion in pledges.
And yet Syrians aren’t the only victims of their country’s war. This week saw the killing of Reverend Frans van der Lugt, a Dutch Jesuit priest, shot to death in the Old City of Homs. Father Frans stayed behind in the besieged areas of the city, ministering to the afflicted. The Pope expressed “profound pain” at his passing, while Syrians took their grief to Twitter. “We only hear about the good people of Syria after we lose them … rest in peace Father,” said one Syrian tweet. “They killed the hope inside us.”