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 neighboring Turkey and Jordan, the lucky among them in pre-fabricated structures provided in some of the Turkish camps, the vast 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 from fuel to medicines and foodstuffs raising the specter of disease and hunger along with the threat of instant death from 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 from their allies abroad, much less a NATO cavalry riding to the rescue as it had done in Libya. The rebels continue to be plagued by divisions, and Western powers are increasingly anxious over the influence of salafist extremists within the armed insurgency.
(PHOTOS: Syria’s Slow-Motion Civil War)
The expected collapse of Assad’s armed forces has failed to materialize, and defections to the rebel side have slowed to a trickle. Instead of signaling an imminent denouement, the incremental gains and losses of each side along the shifting front-lines suggests a strategic stalemate, in which neither side is capable of delivering the other a knockout blow. Against that backdrop, the latest developments on Syria’s borders with Turkey and Jordan in recent days and weeks appear to be symptoms of that stalemate, rather than signs of imminent outside intervention. “If this continues we will respond with greater force,” said Turkey’s military chief, General Necdet Özel, Wednesday, during a visit to the Turkish border town of Akçakale, which had suffered six days of artillery fire from Syria. Turkey had responded in kind to the shelling that began last week, and on Wednesday it intercepted and inspected (and later released, after confiscating communication equipment) a Syria-bound civilian airliner on suspicion of carrying weapons from Moscow.
But for all Turkey’s bluster — and NATO’s obligatory vows “to protect and defend Turkey if necessary” — the fact that the provocative shelling from the Syrian side continued for six days suggests that Assad is calling the bluff of his old friend, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. A majority of the Turkish public opposes sending troops into Syria; the war has already imposed an economic burden on Turkey through the cutoff of trade and the refugee crisis, and it has also boosted the fortunes of the separatist PKK insurgency among Turkey’s Kurds as well as raising tensions with its Alawite and Alevi minorities. The Western powers without whose active involvement most analysts concur Turkey might find its capabilities stretched by a solo Syria intervention show no appetite for that option.