Western attempts to forge a peace solution in Syria suffered a major setback this week following the successful insurgence of foreign fighters from Hezbollah and Iran.
U.S. officials, chiefly Secretary of State John Kerry, have pushed the idea of a follow-up conference in Geneva this summer where representatives from the opposition movement with foreign allies might be able to convince the regime of President Bashar al-Assad to step down peacefully. A similar conference in June 2012 proved useless after the Russian delegation – an historic ally of the Assad regime – refused to call for his ouster.
A new agreement might have been possible in recent months when Assad and his forces appeared to be on their heels. Their ability to recapture the strategic town of al-Qusair near the Lebanese border earlier this week means supporters of the rebel fighters could abandon hopes for pushing for a peaceful settlement.
"Right now there's no pressure on the regime to negotiate," says Elizabeth O'Bagy, a security analyst with the Institute for the Study of War. Rebel allies need "to do something to create some sort of parity on the ground, or some pressure on the Assad regime to bargain in good faith.
"I don't think they're willing to do that."
The State Department remains adamant that the conference will take place.
"It will," said spokeswoman Jen Psaki at a press conference on Thursday, following questions from reporters on whether it would occur. Psaki cited planning delays due to ensuring the conference takes place "in the most conducive environment."
"The U.N., the U.S., and the Russian representatives will meet again in just a few weeks and continue to work towards setting a date and agenda and determining participation," she said.
The battle for al-Qusair, a town outside Homs and roughly 5 miles from the Lebanese border, became a fight for survival for both sides, which saw it as a critical linchpin. Rebel fighters needed it to receive supplies – chiefly arms – from the Lebanese government, while Assad saw it as a lifeline between Damascus and the Syrian coast, home of the Alawites, a loyalist religious group.
Operatives from Iran and Hezbollah, the militant political party in Lebanon, have flocked to Syria within the last year to aid the embattled Assad regime. A former State Department official with experience in the Middle East describes to U.S. News these fighters as "well-trained" and a "tough bunch who go where the trouble is." Their pursuit of protecting Assad assists an ultimate goal of defeating neighboring Israel.
"Hezbollah made a major contribution," says O'Bagy of the fighting in al-Qusair. They provided critical resources along with hardened guerrilla fighters, trained in the kind of gritty hand-to-hand combat that exceeded the capabilities of Syria's conventional forces.
But Hezbollah is not wholly responsible. The Assad regime has adopted a new strategy focused more on counter insurgency and complementary asymmetrical air strikes.
It will likely continue this winning strategy elsewhere.
O'Bagy relayed reports from a recent trip to Syria of Hezbollah units moving as far north as Aleppo, the stronghold of the rebel movement. Ongoing protests in Turkey further complicate the situation, where a government-weary middle class largely does not support Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's involvement in the neighboring conflict.
"I don't see any greater involvement coming from any partner, whether that be the U.S. or any European country," she says of the prospect of a second Geneva conference. "They're not committed to creating the conditions that will make negotiations successful."