Syria at an impasse | Middle East | News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW | 24.12.2012

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Middle East

Syria at an impasse

Part of the Syrian population has fought against the government for two years. As many people are caught between the front lines, the situation in Syria is unclear, but increasingly worrisome.

A flooded tent, a soaked mattress, and no means to warm themselves - winter has come to the provisional refugee camps near the Turkish-Syrian border. The nights have become bitterly cold, and there are not enough blankets available.

However, many Syrians who have made it to the camps have experienced far worse. They are on the run from the clashes between government troops and rebels that continue to spread to new areas.

"The fighting in Syria moves on from one place to the next," said Roth Jüttner, a Middle East expert with the human rights group Amnesty International. "Many Syrians we have met told us that they had to flee not once, but several times," she said.

Millions of people on the run

A masked Syrian rebel

It is not clear which side is winning the war

Every day, thousands of Syrians seek refuge in neighboring Turkey - but also in Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan. An end to the fighting is not in sight. According to the United Nations, the diverse groups that form the Syrian opposition movement are getting stronger. But the decisive blow against the Assad regime has yet to come. Government troops continue to use military force against the uprising - regardless of civilian suffering. It's unclear which side has the upper hand, as assessing the situation in the country has grown difficult, particularly for foreign observers.

The lack of clarity is due, at least in part, to the fact that the government, but also parts of the opposition, have little interest in impartial, objective media coverage.

"It's a propaganda war," said Cengiz Günay, a Middle East expert at the Austrian Institute for International Politics. "There's always talk of an 'Alawi' regime," he added, "But drawing the lines through Syrian society isn't that simple."

Günay believes it's because of the conflict increasingly touching on religious issues that many Alawi don't see any other way than to cling to the Assad regime.

"They fear for their lives, should the regime fall," he said.

Makeshift tents for Syrians on the Turkish border (EPA/MAYSUN/dpa)

Tents in refugee camps have been home to many Syrians for two years

Minorities caught in the middle

But it's not only the Alawi who feel threatened by both sides. Most religious minorities in Syria are suffering increasing attacks by radical Islamists. That's why many of those who are part of a minority don't support the opposition, but the regime. The military, too, and the mostly intact structures of the establishment continue to support Assad.

What remains ambiguous is the position of the Kurdish parts of the population. While they are now in control of the North of the country, they may still cooperate with the president in Damascus.

Meanwhile, Assad doesn't only benefit from the support of his followers, but also from the fact that the Syrian opposition is highly fragmented. The Muslim Brotherhood, for instance, has always opposed the regime - but now it's also in competition with the even more radical Salafists.

Secular, leftist and nationalist groups have also been long-time opponents of the regime, but represent completely different interests from those of the Islamists.

The Syrian opposition includes soldiers who have switched sides in recent months and gone over to the Free Syrian Army. There are also many Syrians who have lived for years in exile. They all want to overthrow the regime, but have different goals for the time afterwards.

Involvement of regional powers

Free Syrian Army fighter fires a weapon during clashes (Narciso Contreras/AP/dapd).

Many soldiers have defected to the Free Syrian Army

"The complexity of the Syrian conflict also lies in the fact that many external actors are involved," Günay said. "The Islamist militias, for example, are supported by conservative capital from the Gulf states." In contrast, the regime's strongest support comes from Russia, Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah - despite hints that the allies are preparing for a possible end to the Assad government.

In fact, in recent weeks there have been signs that the Syrian government itself no longer expects a military victory. For example, Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa recently called for negotiations with the exile opposition demonized by Assad and for the formation of a government of national unity. No further steps have so far been taken. How long the conflict will last and what will comes after that is unclear. The only certainty is that the situation is continuing to worsen - especially for the population.

A dramatic development

"The situation has deteriorated dramatically in recent months," said Ruth Jüttner of Amnesty International. "There is a shortage of food, medicine and shelter."

Several million people have fled - within Syria and in neighboring countries. The United Nations expects that by the middle of next year, four million people will need help.

Ingo Radtke, secretary general of the humanitarian group Malteser International, also paints a bleak picture: "The full extent of the tragedy will only be seen when the war comes to an end," he said. The refugees in Syria and neighboring countries now need all the help they can get.

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