Syria sides fight for keeps as Geneva peace talks loom
As is normal when peace negotiations loom, the approach of the Geneva II conference scheduled for 22 January has witnessed something of an upsurge of violence in the struggle between regime and rebels in Syria.
But this is no normal conflict, and there is no guarantee at all that the conference - which diplomats insist is not an event, but the start of a process expected to last months - will produce an end to the carnage.
While it is highly unlikely that a whistle will blow and the guns will have to fall silent, the two sides are clearly trying to enhance their positions on the ground so that they can go into the talks - assuming they take place - looking as strong as possible.
At the moment, the regime side looks in slightly better shape than the rebels. But it is clearly not in a position to sweep the board and regain control of the country. The overall picture, despite daily upsets and advances here and there, remains one of stalemate.
As one analyst put it : "They look like two tired boxers slugging it out."
The most important current focus is on the crucial highway linking Damascus with Homs and thence to the main northern cities and the Alawite heartland on the coast.
The road has been cut by rebels for nearly three weeks, with government forces battling to regain control of a lifeline whose rupture has led to fuel shortages in the capital.
Control is vital for the regime in any eventuality, and all the more so should a future scenario involve the country's partition in any way, including a ceasefire in position which would leave the two sides at least provisionally in control of the territory they hold.
But so far it has been hard pushed to dislodge rebel fighters from towns like Nabak, halfway between Damascus and Homs, and clashes were taking place on the highway itself daily. Even if it does drive them out, it may find use of the road subject to disruption by guerrilla-type rebel attacks.
Government forces have made some limited progress around the southern edge of Aleppo in the north, and could use that as a springboard for further inroads into rebel-held terrain if they can marshal the resources.
But in other areas, they are making less than impressive headway.
Heavy fighting around Deraa in the south has made it hard for them to keep their supply lines open.
And despite months of battling and besieging - and even the chemical weapons assault on 21 August which was followed by a concerted ground offensive - regime troops have not been able to push the rebels out of a ring of suburbs around the capital, where they have been entrenched for well over a year.
The government side is better able to conduct a centralised military strategy, and is better resourced. It has made devastating, if often inaccurate, use of its air power and even ground-to-ground missiles.
But it continues to face a manpower problem which has often seen its forces unable to garrison and hold positions they have regained.
It has tried to mitigate the problem by developing a largely Alawite "National Defence" militia - with much Iranian help - to act as a kind of home guard or army auxiliary in many areas, largely subsuming the pro-government shabiha irregulars.
But it has been obliged to rely increasingly on Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and other Iranian-backed non-Syrian Shia militias (notably the Abul Fadl al-Abbas brigades, drawn from Iraq and elsewhere) in combat zones.
Given all that, it might seem fanciful for the regime to imagine that it can reconquer the whole country.
But given the disarray on the rebel side, it is not surprising that the government seems to believe it is on the road to victory and that time is on its side.
Rise of the radicals
Western hopes of helping construct a unified, moderate, politically obedient rebel movement, sidelining Islamist hardliners and leaving them to wither away, could hardly be further from realisation.
The trend has been in exactly the opposite direction, with Islamic radicals increasingly making the running and the Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) waning.
On the ground, in-fighting and profiteering have considerably sapped the opposition military effort.
Among the latest developments, fighters from the recently-formed Islamic Front alliance have humiliated the FSA's "General Staff" by taking over its positions and arms depots on the Bab al-Hawa border with Turkey.
FSA elements have been involved in clashes with the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which is trying to impose itself in many areas, especially in the north and east of the country, and which has also tangled with its rivals for the al-Qaeda franchise, the Nusra Front.
Islamist groups - but FSA fighters and Arab tribesmen too - have also been involved in fighting with Kurdish militias controlling substantial pockets along the Turkish border in the north.
If all this has considerably eroded and fragmented the overall opposition military effort against the regime, it is an even bigger disaster politically for the Western advocates of a negotiated political settlement.
There is an almost complete disconnect between the effective forces on the ground inside the country, and the largely external political leadership - the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition - which claims to be the sole representative of the Syrian people.
Rejection of the Coalition and its willingness to engage in negotiations with the regime was the main motivation for the formation in November of the Islamic Front, which brings together the main non-al-Qaeda Islamist groups on a platform which favours an Islamic state and rejects democracy and secularism.
Unless powerful groupings like the Islamic Front can somehow be brought on board the negotiating process - or at least induced to tolerate it - it is hard to see how a credible opposition delegation can be formed.
That puts a huge onus on the US and its allies to lean on the regional countries - mainly Saudi Arabia but also Qatar and Turkey - which have influence with the Front.
Those countries were themselves infuriated and unsettled by Washington's failure to bomb Syria after the chemical attack in August, and its tentative detente with Iran.
The situation on the ground makes it even more vital for the Western powers to demonstrate, preferably in advance, that negotiations can deliver by political means what the rebels have failed to achieve militarily - first and foremost the removal of Bashar al-Assad and his key associates.
That is a huge challenge, given that the regime, which feels stronger than it has for a long time, insists that Mr Assad will lead any transitional arrangement that the Geneva process may produce.
Oppositionists fear that negotiation with the regime under the current balance of power implies that the West may have concluded that President Assad is there to stay, and that a bargain has to be struck with him to halt the bloodshed.
They also fear that the Western powers are now much more concerned about dealing with the rampant jihadist threat than getting rid of the Assad regime.
But Western diplomats insist that the two concerns are not mutually exclusive, and that there can be no deal that leaves Mr Assad in place - not as a moral judgment, but because it simply wouldn't work.
It goes without saying that the regime has no intention of going to Geneva to negotiate its own demise.
If President Assad is to be eased out, it will have to be because his Russian and Iranian saviours, upon whom his survival ultimately depends, judge it necessary for their own different interests.
That may seem unlikely, but is not inconceivable.
Some diplomats say they detect extreme nervousness in the upper echelons of the regime as Geneva approaches.
There are even hard-to-verify reports of large sums of money making their way out of the country via Shia businessmen in Lebanon, to feather nests abroad.
Why would Moscow and Tehran agree to let Mr Assad go? Clearly, only if a formula for Syria's future could be hammered out that met their own basic requirements, something that will obviously be hard to achieve.
But, like all the other regional and international actors involved in the gory drama, Russia and Iran can hardly look at Syria today as a success story for themselves.
For all, it's somewhere between a problem and a continuing and deepening disaster.
That, and a near-universal realisation by the outside players that there is no victory for either side, has helped make the Geneva talks possible and necessary, because there is no other way out.
Other favourable factors include the impressive new working relationship between the Russians and Americans, which produced the Syrian chemical weapons agreement; and Iran's new engagement with the US and other Western powers over its nuclear programme.
If sustained, both developments are game-changers which can only impact positively on Syrian peace efforts.
But success is far from guaranteed or even likely.
Neither of the warring sides can see a real interest in going into a situation where they would be obliged to make unwanted compromises.
On both sides, significant forces are profiting considerably from the conflict and have an interest in its continuation, whatever the consequences for the suffering civilians.
Left to their own devices, they would clearly continue to slug it out on the ground.
So if there is to be a solution, reconciling the seemingly irreconcilable will require multiple interventions and pressures by their regional and international patrons, interacting in a complex, opaque and unpredictable three-dimensional mesh of relationships.
Which makes trying to get a solution in Syria look like playing a slot machine with nine pieces of fruit, not just four. And some of them may turn out to be missing. But there is no alternative.