Last week, the Syrian civil war entered its fourth year. Two events highlighted how intractable this conflict has become.
First, the Syrian parliament passed an electoral law setting the stage for (in theory) contested elections in the middle of the year. The law's stipulation that candidates must be born to Syrian parents and to have lived in Syria for ten consecutive years before nominating is a not-so-subtle targeting of the exiled opposition leadership.
UN and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi believes that if an election were to be run mid-year, another round of Geneva peace talks may not materialise. Should Assad run and claim victory in an election, he would be signaling to the world that any negotiated solution would need to acknowledge his primacy, a move anathema to the opposition and likely to ensure the death of political negotiations. For Damascus, such an election victory would send a clear message that the regime intends to stay. If it achieves incremental military gains, the regime may also encourage local ceasefires which could further fragment an already disunited opposition.
The second event was the Syrian regime's re-taking the town of Yabroud from the rebels, which helps to further strangle a key resupply route of men and materiel from Lebanon into Syria.
One of the reasons Hizbullah was so active in this battle was that re-taking the town denies the opposition a location from which to deploy car bombs into the Biqa' Valley and the southern suburbs of Beirut. With the fall of Yabroud imminent, rockets were fired into Shi'a towns in the BIqa'. And as if to prove Hizbullah's point, a suicide car bomb attack was foiled against a target in the Biqa' within hours of Yabroud's recapture. Two Hizbullah members allegedly pursuing the car were killed.
It seems many rebel fighters withdrew from the town once its defence became untenable. The main withdrawal route was west, into Lebanon's largely pro-opposition town of Arsal, bringing with it retaliatory fire from Syrian aircraft and Lebanese Army efforts to stop rebels from infiltrating the town.
With the Syrian regime tightening the screws on the Qalamoun area, Lebanon should expect more tension as fighters withdraw via the easiest route. As the war enters its fourth year, Beirut is increasingly feeling the impact of Syria's civil war, whether it be through Hizbullah operating in Syria, or opposition fighters withdrawing to Lebanon or attacking Shi'a targets there.
Observing the Syrian civil war is like watching a slow-motion car crash: we all know how it turns out but we feel powerless to stop it. The year-long political and military stalemate that tactically favours the regime looks set to continue in year four of the war. Syrian Government forces are likely to press ahead with regaining as much control as they can in Aleppo in advance of the elections so that they can claim a mandate in Syria's main population centres of Damascus, Aleppo and Homs, giving themselves and their allies a fig leaf of popular legitimacy. Expect 2014 to be grim.