Winter is coming, and with it the near certainty that the lot of millions of suffering Syrians will get substantially worse. Some 335,000 and counting find themselves in refugee camps in Turkey and Jordan, the majority huddled in tents. But for millions more back home, the brutal ravages of an 18-month civil war that has claimed as many as 30,000 lives must now be endured under the growing privations of a siege economy imposed by war and sanctions, the winter chill and shortages of everything fuel to medicines and foodstuffs raising the specter of disease and hunger along with the threat of instant death rockets and bombs.
But one group of Syrians may be greeting the oncoming winter with a grim sense of satisfaction: As bad as things may be, President Bashar al-Assad and his entourage and those who are willing to fight and die to keep in power know that for them, things could be a whole lot worse. Sure, the regime has lost control of vast swathes of territory that appear to be intractably under the control of insurgents. But if the rebels are able to control much of the countryside, they remain hopelessly outgunned in the head-to-head fight for the major cities, with no sign of any heavy weapons deliveries their allies abroad, much less a NATO cavalry riding to the rescue as it had done in Libya.
The expected collapse of Assad's armed forces has failed to materialize, and defections to the rebel side have slowed to a trickle. The two sides are locked in a strategic stalemate, in which neither side is capable of delivering the other a knockout blow and recent events on Syria's borders with Turkey and Jordan are symptoms of that stalemate. The fact that Syrian forces continued firing shells into Turkey for six days despite retaliatory fire and warnings Turkey, and NATO's vow to protect its member state, suggests that Assad is calling Ankara's bluff, knowing that Turkey lacks the appetite for a messy solo intervention Syria and even the means to do so effectively.
Turkey knows that no Libya-style NATO intervention is likely, right now, and faces the alarming prospect of a U.S. strategy that envisages a protracted war to bring down Assad, in which the role of outside players is simply to empower the rebels and contain the fallout. Easier done for the Western powers than for those who border Turkey, and on whose economy and society the war has already imposed tremendous burdens.
The bipartisan political consensus in Washington opposes direct military intervention in Syria, even if there are differences over the question of facilitating arms transfers to the rebels. Beyond that, the U.S. is sending small groups of advisers to Jordan, but their purposes is primarily to "insulate" that country the civil war next door.
Things are hardly looking good for Assad, of course. He's unlikely to defeat the rebellion and restore control over all of Syria, and governs a shrinking domain by means of naked force and fear. Still, he's far beaten, and if anything, Syria itself is in danger of breaking up into warring fiefdoms along the lines seen in neighboring Lebanon the 1970s until 1992.
Assad's opponents, of course, had hoped that he would, by now, have been removed the scene, either by exile, imprisonment or death. But the regime itself appears to have either chosen, or stumbled onto, the terrain of sectarian civil war a Milosevic option stirring fears of an extremist-led Sunni rebellion to rally his own Alawite sect and other minorities, and even the urban Sunni bourgeoisie, and then making that a self-fulfilling prophecy by violently suppressing peaceful protests. Assad also coolly assessed the regional and international strategic balance and concluded that he could count on strong backing Iran and Russia against any attempt to dispatch him a la Gaddafi.
Milosevic, of course, eventually got his comeuppance at the hands of his own people, and died in a prison cell at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. It may well be that a similar fate eventually awaits Assad. But Milosevic was ousted eight years after the ning of the wars that ended Yugoslavia, and in the interim, the Serbian strongman had succeeded in making himself indispensable to the process ending the very wars he'd played a major role in starting. That moment came when ending the war became a greater priority in the minds of the global power brokers than changing the power arrangements. Assad if far achieving that goal, and he may never do so. But with the second anniversary of the Syrian rebellion just over four months away, he may have more reason for satisfaction over the course of events, at this point, than do his adversaries.