The second anniversary of the Syrian civil war is looming and the political and military situation remains deadlocked. The Assad regime's superiority in conventional weapons has meant that, while government forces have ceded ground, they have denied the rebel groups control over any of the main population centres.
The political situation remains equally difficult to resolve. The support of Russia, China and Iran has been crucial to the Syrian regime's survival. But the lack of an alternative Syrian political grouping has made its survival that much easier.
Having elbowed aside the old Syrian National Council because of its infighting, lack of influence over the armed groups inside Syria and (perceived or real) dominance by Sunni Islamists, the West is facing many of the same problems with the now not-so-quite-newly-minted Syrian National Coalition.
The political opposition has already missed its first opportunity to form an alternative government, and has given itself until late next week to establish something credible. With its president, Mouaz al-Khatib, due to visit Washington in February, the warmth of that visit (or even whether there is one) will likely be contingent on some structure emerging.
Western governments have invested much in the new coalition, so its inability to organise itself will have many in Washington, London and other capitals tearing their hair out in frustration. With 60,000 dead and a brutal minority regime remaining in power, the inability of the political opposition to set aside personal differences and shelve ambitions for the greater good doesn't augur well for the future.
If the coalition does form an alternative government, a fresh set of challenges will be posed for those more than 100 states (including Australia) which have recognised the coalition as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people. As Frederic Hof points out, once an alternative government is formed these same states will have to decide whether to recognise it as the legitimate Syrian government, and to provide it with the moral, financial and material support such recognition demands.
The second challenge will be to convince uncommitted Syrians (who have no regard for the Assad regime but even less for the ill-disciplined rebel groups) that supporting an alternative government is in their best interests. Finding a balance of ministers that will convince all Syrian interest groups (rebels, Baathists, Islamists, secularists, religious and ethnic minorities) that they are capable of governing will be virtually impossible. And without funding there is not much material difference that they can make in the areas the rebels control.
It is very much a chicken and egg dilemma: do you fund the coalition without knowing who has portfolio responsibilities in order to give it popular credibility, or do you require ministers to be allocated portfolios to assure donors of the coalition's institutional credibility before funding it? The French Government, meeting with the Syrian National Coalition in Paris, is now dealing with this very conundrum.
And all of this doesn't even begin to address the military situation on the ground...
Photo by Flickr user FreedomHouse.