In recent months, as supplies of aid, money and weapons to Syria’s opposition have dwindled, it had clung to the hope that ongoing international political support would prevent an outright victory for Bashar al-Assad and his backers. Not any more.
An announcement earlier this week by Jordan – one of the opposition’s most robust supporters – that “bilateral ties with Damascus are going in the right direction” has, for many, marked a death knell for the opposition cause.
Within the ranks of the political opposition, and regional allies, the statement was the opening act of something that all had dreaded: normalisation with a bitter foe. And without anything much to show for it.
Emphasising his words, Jordanian government spokesman Mohammad al-Momani said: “This is a very important message that everyone should hear.” And indeed, the about-face in Amman was quickly noted in Ankara, Doha, and Riyadh, where – after seven and a-half years of war – states that were committed to toppling the Syrian leader are now resigned to him staying.
Returning from a summit in the Saudi capital last week, opposition leaders say they were told directly by the foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, that Riyadh was disengaging. “The Saudis don’t care about Syria anymore,” said a senior western diplomat. “It’s all Qatar for them. Syria is lost.”
In Britain too, rhetoric that had demanded Assad leave the Presidential Palace, as a first step towards peace, has been replaced by what Whitehall calls “pragmatic realism”. The foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, last week couched Assad’s departure as “not a precondition. But part of a transition.”
Rex Tillerson, the US secretary of state, has openly delegated finding a solution to Syria to Russia. Donald Trump, meanwhile, has pledged to close a CIA-run programme, which had sent weapons from Jordan and Turkey to vetted Syrian rebel groups for much of the past four years. Washington has adopted a secondary role in twin, ailing, peace processes in Geneva and Astana and has focused its energies on fighting Isis, not Assad.
Where such a change of direction leaves up to 6 million refugees who had fled the war for Jordan, Turkey and Europe is a question that many of the exiles are now starting to grapple with. Many, like Ghassan Moussa, say that near certain defeat is more a result of international fatigue than the opposition’s shortcomings.
Syrian soldiers prepare artillery. Photograph: Xinhua/REX/Shutterstock
“I ran away from Bashar, because if I stayed he would have killed me and all those I love,” said Moussa, who fled the Damascus suburb of Ghouta in mid-2013. “All of those who came with me did so because we believed that the countries that were backing the opposition would stay with us.”
Robert Ford, former US ambassador to Damascus and senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, said: “Opposition backers quit on the opposition for different reasons. First, the constant squabbling, pettiness and inability to agree on a common leadership and strategy always made donors leery of the rebels and the political [arm]. Moreover, their coordination and eventual integration with an al-Qaida affiliate made the Americans and Jordanians uncomfortable.
“Jordan is unwilling to take any more refugees and wants the fighting in the south to stop and only accepts continued anti-Isis [operations], as per American preference.”
The consequences of Assad clawing back control – assisted by the staunch support of Iran and Russia – are also increasingly being felt in opposition areas inside Syria, where international aid donors have been having second thoughts.
Officials in Whitehall are examining whether Britain will continue to honour up to £200m in aid for local populations in Idlib and communities exiled from elsewhere in Syria.
The officials fear that the al-Qaida inspired affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, has increasingly imposed itself on how local institutions are run, meaning aid deliveries cannot credibly be kept away from a prescribed terror group. Germany is also considering suspending its aid program to Idlib province. If both countries pull out, the US is expected to follow.
“The fact that this has become a self-fulfilling prophecy has been particularly troubling,” said one diplomat. “It did not have to be this way.”
Another senior regional diplomat said: “There are tremendous consequences for the millions of IDPs [internally displaced people] and exiles as well as for families seeking justice. How do you get reconciliation out of this? This will feed impunity and revenge. Fatigue is not an excuse for what will follow.”
Three other diplomats contacted by the Guardian refused to put their names to their thoughts on the next phase of the conflict, which they collectively believed would be marked by the continued re-imposition of authority by Damascus, with heavy input from Iran and Russia, both of which are vying for a decisive role in postwar Syria.
“Once the Russians realise that Iran – not Syria – has actually won this, they will put Assad on the table,” said one of the diplomats. That is their trump card; being able to say to the international community that they have delivered what they want. It is also their exit strategy.
“But they have told us that he won’t be shot outside the gates. It will be a comfortable exile.”
In Turkey, one of the first of the opposition’s backers to divest from a common approach of arming an anti-Assad opposition to a more narrow interest of curbing the ambitions of Syrian Kurds, there is a broad recognition that the war it backed more than any other state can no longer be won.
“That started around a year ago,” said Haji Saud, a prominent leader of a rebel faction, now in exile in Turkey. The Russians told them they will stop the Kurds from controlling the border in April last year. After that, it became difficult to get here. Now Syria will descend further into territories run by warlords. When everyone looks away, it will be hell. And we never thought it could get worse than this.”