The Syrian rebellion has cost more than 100,000 lives and displaced six million from their homes (a quarter of the population), about two million of whom are now in Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan. The uprising began early in 2011 in the context of the Arab Spring, which highlighted the diversity of outside interests involved. However, nothing can be understood without taking into account the long family dictatorship and the brutal reaction of Bashar al-Assad, who, following in his father's footsteps, sought to crush the protest with repression.
At the fall of the Ottoman Empire in Syria, as in the rest of the region, there was no national material with which to build a sustainable state, owing to the religious and ethnic fragmentation of these societies, where the secularization that in Europe saw religious identity substituted by national identity never happened. Even in Israel, the region's most consolidated state, identity was purely religious and ethnic in nature.
After World War II, the new hegemonic powers, the United States and Russia, pushed for decolonization, obliging France and Britain to leave the Middle East and North Africa. In some countries they left toy monarchies, which were soon overturned, leaving only Jordan and Morocco as precarious relics. Algeria was the exception. Owing to the volume of French settlement, it achieved independence only after a cruel war, which forged a state capable of keeping Islamism at bay, thanks to a continued military dictatorship.
But much more than the internal factors, what counts in Syria are the external ones, both those particular to the region - the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, the confrontation between Shiites (Iran) and Sunnis (Saudi Arabia) - and the interests of the United States and Russia.
One particular factor has led Western powers to seek a negotiated solution: Western support for the rebel groups has fostered the influence of Al Qaeda, evoking the memory of Afghanistan, when the West shot itself in the foot by helping the Taliban defy the Soviets. The growing influence of Al Qaeda confirms the Syrian government's claim that the rebels are terrorists. Between Assad and Al Qaeda the choice seems clear, but favors the triumph of Iran and Russia.
The drift of the Syrian conflict points to a compromise with Iran. Without the success of the conference in Geneva between the US, Russia, the UK, France and Germany, there is no hope of a deal between the Syrian government and the rebels, which can only consist of the eventual departure of Assad under negotiated conditions. However, a negotiated solution to the Syrian conflict implies a far-reaching redefinition of power relations in the region.
The central question in the penumbra is Israel's position on a conflict in a neighboring country with which it is formally at war. Its interest is for the enemy to tear itself to pieces in a civil conflict, yet it cannot allow the situation to strengthen its worst enemy, Iran. Understandably, Benjamin Netanyahu thinks it is a "bad agreement that gives Iran exactly what it wanted: a partial lifting of the sanctions, while keeping an essential part of its nuclear program." Such is the compromise, in which both Iran and the US are aware of their growing weakness. If the peace is consolidated, it will be much more difficult for Israel to refuse to recognize a Palestinian state with borders that will make it viable.
The compromise with Iran is also indigestible for Saudi Arabia in the region. For Iran to recover its freedom of movement, and even one day that of exporting oil, can only lead the Saudi regime in the direction of religious war with the Shiites.
The enemies of compromise, Israel and Saudi Arabia, have strong support in the US, and not only in the Republican Party. Were it not for the relative weak US position, the prospective compromise would surely fade out before going anywhere.