In recent months, as supplies of aid, money and weapons to Syria’s opposition have dwindled; it had clung to the hope that ongoing international political support would prevent an outright victory for Bashar al-Assad and his backers. Not anymore.
An announcement earlier this week by Jordan – one of the opposition’s most robust supporters – that “bilateral ties with Damascus are going in the right direction” has, for many, marked a death knell for the opposition cause.
Within the ranks of the political opposition, and regional allies, the statement was the opening act of something that all had dreaded: normalisation with a bitter foe.
Emphasising his words, Jordanian government spokesman Mohammad al-Momani said: “This is a very important message that everyone should hear.” And indeed, the about-face in Amman was quickly noted in Ankara, Doha, and Riyadh, where – after seven and a-half years of war – states that were committed to toppling the Syrian leader are now resigned to him staying.
Returning from a summit in the Saudi capital last week, opposition leaders say they were told directly by the foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, that Riyadh was disengaging. “The Saudis don’t care about Syria anymore,” said a senior western diplomat. “It’s all Qatar for them. Syria is lost.”
In Britain too, rhetoric that had demanded Assad leave the Presidential Palace, as a first step towards peace, has been replaced by what Whitehall calls “pragmatic realism”. The foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, last week couched Assad’s departure as “not a precondition. But part of a transition.”
Rex Tillerson, the US secretary of state, has openly delegated finding a solution to Syria to Russia. Donald Trump, meanwhile, has pledged to close a CIA-run programme, which had sent weapons from Jordan and Turkey to vetted Syrian rebel groups for much of the past four years. Washington has adopted a secondary role in twin, ailing, peace processes in Geneva and Astana and has focused its energies on fighting Isis, not Assad.
As such a change of direction leaves up to 6 million refugees who had fled the war for Jordan, Turkey and Europe is a question that many of the exiles are now starting to grapple with.
Robert Ford, former US ambassador to Damascus and senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, said: “Opposition backers quit on the opposition for different reasons. First, the constant squabbling, pettiness and inability to agree on a common leadership and strategy always made donors leery of the rebels and the political [arm]. Moreover, their coordination and eventual integration with an al-Qaida affiliate made the Americans and Jordanians uncomfortable.
“Jordan is unwilling to take any more refugees and wants the fighting in the south to stop and only accepts continued anti-Isis [operations], as per American preference.”
The consequences of Assad clawing back control – assisted by the staunch support of Iran and Russia – are also increasingly being felt in opposition areas inside Syria, where international aid donors have been having second thoughts.
Officials in Whitehall are examining whether Britain will continue to honour up to £200m in aid for local populations in Idlib and communities exiled from elsewhere in Syria.