Six and a half million Syrians are now internally displaced. Two and a half million have fled to Turkey, Jordan and the Lebanon.
After up to 200,000 deaths since mass protests against the regime began in 2011, the use of chemical weapons against his own people, and the attempted starvation of civilians in opposition controlled areas, Assad still remains relatively firmly in control of a rump Syrian state.
Some politicians in the USA and Europe are even starting to recommend an alliance with Assad to stop ISIS (the “Islamic State” movement).
However, direct links are unlikely to begin anytime soon. Working with Assad and by extension Iran and the Lebanese militia Hesbollah would have a very negative impact on the USA’s relations with Turkey, the Gulf states, and the Sunni Arab population in Iraq that NATO and its allies hope to turn against ISIS.
Former US ambassador to Syria Robert Ford has called for greater support to the more moderate Free Syrian Army as a bulwark against ISIS.
Over the last few months there has been a small but emerging opposition to Assad from amongst the Alawite minority from which he comes. Many of them have suffered sectarian attacks from the Sunni dominated opposition, but they have also suffered under the increasingly grim and siege-like conditions of Syrian government-controlled territory.
Ford argues that were the opposition to become more open and less obviously sectarian, then the US could provide it with support to remove Assad from power and become a key ally in fighting ISIS.
However, the FSA is a loose movement. Its nominal leaders, “hotel revolutionaries” outside Syria who attend conferences and take part in failed negotiations, have little control over it.
Several brigades have worked with the Al-Nusra Front, the official Syrian Al Qaeda affiliate, and some have defected to the “Islamic State” itself.
The US and its allies see the Kurds as the main bulwark against the growth of ISIS, but remain sceptical about the PYD, the main Syrian Kurdish group, which has close ties with the Turkish-Kurdish PKK.
The PYD and its armed battalions, the YPG, have fought ISIS longer than any other opposition group within Syria. ISIS has targeted them because of the oil rich areas which fall under their control in Northern Syria, and because of its sectarian hatred for Kurds.
From the beginning, in 2011, Arab chauvinists in the Syrian opposition have cold-shouldered the Kurds. They were excluded from the early official opposition that formed the FSA.
The YPG’s role in beating back ISIS at Mt Sinjar in Iraq and their increasing collaboration with some other militias has improved their image with the Western powers; but the de facto anti-ISIS alliance remains uneasy.