It started with peaceful demonstrations for more democracy in March 2011 and turned into a bloody civil war. After three years, the international community still hasn't come up with a solution for the Syria conflict.
While the world is eagerly watching the developments in Ukraine, another conflict increasingly fades into the media background. For the last three years a brutal civil war has raged in Syria. Some 140,000 people have died in the conflict and 2.4 million people have fled their home. And there is no end in sight.
The popular uprising against the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad turned into a complex war of many fronts. In addition to battles against government troops, various groups opposing Assad also fight each other and wrestle for regional supremacy.
War parties from the start
Andre Bank from the Hamburg Institute of Global and Area Studies said the warring parties can be roughly divided in four groups. The first group is supporting Assad. These are loyal troops of the Syrian army and militias. "The so called Shabiha - former criminal networks - gained significant influence in the last two years," said Bank.
The second group is the Free Syrian Army, "a union of different militias that was founded in July 2011. These were the first armed units who fought against the Assad regime," Bank said, adding that many of its fighters had deserted from units of the Syrian army.
The third group is made up by Islamic militias. "They differ very much among themselves," said Bank. They include the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the al-Nusra Front, both jihadist militias associated to al Qaeda. "These two groups even fight each other," said Bank. At the beginning of February, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri distanced himself from ISIS.
Kurdish militias make up the fourth group in the conflict. "The Democratic Union Party (PYD), a branch of the Turkish PKK, and its combat units are very active," Bank said, adding that the groups control areas at the border to Turkey and to northern Iraq.
In this complex landscape, the international community has not come up with a way to stop the bloodshed. Russia and Iran are Syria's most important supporters while the West backs the moderate forces from the Free Syrian Army. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states support the Islamic groups, although a few days ago Saudi Arabia has officially classified ISIS and the al-Nusra Front as terrorist groups and has banned them.
The Syria conference in Switzerland, which took place in January under the leadership of UN Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, has made almost no progress. The Assad regime has called the opposition "terrorists" and refuses to form a transitional government with them. The opposition has insisted that Assad steps down before a transitional government can be formed. It is not clear how much influence the negotiations have on the fighters on the ground.
Nevertheless the negotiating process has to be continued according to Volker Perthes, a Middle East expert and director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.
"It is important that the Geneva process exists," Perthes said, proposing that the process be expanded. A meeting of the different social groups could be organized, "which are brought together to talk if a common state is still wanted and how it should look like." The society is very interested in a transition. "The armed forces are the ones who don't want transition, compromise and power sharing," said Perthes.
The influence of the global powers
A transition can only succeed if Russia and the United States find a common position. The joint pressure of the two countries led to Syria's acceptance to destroy its chemical weapons. But implementation of the plan has been slow.
Syria has been slow in providing its chemical weapons for destruction, according to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). A speaker of the US State Department criticized that Syria possibly may not meet the agreed deadline of the end of June to destroy all its chemical weapons.
The Ukraine conflict and the related diplomatic "ice age" between Russia and the US plays into Assad's hands, Perthes said.
"Russia will be less cooperative and the West will be less interested in cooperation with Russia," he said. "A tactician like Assad will realize this and he will feel less obliged to cooperate with the chemical weapons inspectors."