Four years on, Syria's civil war eclipsed by IS terror

BEIRUT - As Syria's civil war rages into a fifth year, the daily suffering of its people has been overshadowed by atrocities committed by the Islamic State group that have sparked international horror.

Four years after anti-regime protests broke out on March 15, 2011, jihadists control large tracts of territory, a defiant President Bashar al-Assad is clinging to power and revolutionary dreams have faded.

The sickening tactics of IS have captured the world's attention in a conflict that has killed more than 210,000 people.

With a brutality shown to the world in their own slick film productions, the jihadists have beheaded hostages, hung the bodies of "infidels" and "spies" from crosses, and thrown homosexuals from rooftops.

They have paraded caged prisoners and enslaved women through the streets, released gruesome videos of the murder of Western hostages and burned alive a Jordanian fighter pilot.

They have attacked minority communities and destroyed ancient artefacts.

"IS has gone so far in its horror that it has succeeded in persuading the West that it represents the ultimate enemy, and that everyone else is a lesser evil," said Karim Bitar, researcher at the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Relations.

"We have therefore returned to the state of mind that looks at everything through the prism of the war against terrorism," he told AFP.

IS began gaining prominence in 2013 as an Al-Qaeda affiliate before essentially being disowned by the global extremist network.

After initially avoiding confrontation with the Syrian army, it began openly fighting the regime the next year.

By then, IS had captured territory in Syria's north and east from anti-regime rebels and Al-Qaeda's official Syrian branch Al-Nusra Front.

Last June IS declared an Islamic "caliphate" spanning swathes of Syria and neighbouring Iraq.

Foreign fighters have streamed into Syria to join the jihadist ranks, causing alarm overseas about the prospect of battle-hardened militants coming home.

'A lesser evil'

By agreeing in 2013 to hand over its chemical weapons to a global watchdog, Syria ensured that the West would not intervene militarily against Assad, even after a deadly chemical attack that killed hundreds outside Damascus.

With a US-led coalition now waging daily air strikes against the jihadists, the West increasingly sees Assad as a potential partner in the war against IS.

Calls for his departure have fallen by the wayside. UN envoy Staffan de Mistura recently described Assad as "part of the solution".

"We have begun to think once again, like we did before the Arab revolutions, that authoritarianism is a lesser evil and that we should engage authoritarian regimes," Bitar said.

In a recent interview with Portuguese television, a confident Assad brushed off Syria's uprising as a Western conspiracy, much like he did in the very first stages of the revolt.

"How could a revolution collapse or fail if you have the support of the West, the support of regional countries, all this money and armaments and so on?" he said.

"You supposed that he's a dictator who is killing his good people, so the people are against him, regional countries are against him, and the West is against him - and he succeeded," Assad said, referring to himself.

'Everyone against everyone' 

The revolution has evolved into a complex conflict with many sides - from regime forces backed by Lebanese Hezbollah Shiite militants and Iranian military officers to opposition rebels, jihadist rivals and Kurdish militia.

"In the first few years of the Syrian revolution, there were two clearly identified sides to the conflict. Today, it's a war of everyone against everyone," said Bitar.

The past year saw a dramatic decline of the Western-backed rebel Free Syrian Army, which after some initial military gains against Assad's forces has since been reduced to a sprinkling of weak and underfunded groups.

Syria's economy and infrastructure have been destroyed. Hunger and cold knock on every door.

More than 12 million people are in need of humanitarian aid and over 11 million have fled their homes.

Emile Hokayem, senior fellow at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, does not expect a political solution in the foreseeable future.

"The levels of violence may drop because a lot of people have already been killed and there will be a transfer of population," he said.

"But it's very difficult to see Syria being put together any time soon." Pro-democracy activists have lost hope.

"What revolution are we talking about now? I am totally convinced the international community has no conscience," said Yazan Homsy, who endured a nearly two-year regime siege of his home city Homs.