At the very moment that the United Nations convened peace talks to try to work out a solution to the bloody civil war in Syria, the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and its Russian and Iranian allies mounted a ferocious offensive to resolve the struggle on their terms. That group is determined to reduce the battle to two sets of forces — the current government in Syria and the most radical, abhorrent opposition. That means wiping out any moderate opposition forces around which the international community could rally to replace Assad. Assad and his backers appear to be succeeding.

For five years, Syria has been convulsed by a civil war that has claimed as many as a quarter of a million lives, and uprooted as many as 11 million people, creating nearly 4 million refugees, a number that is anticipated to swell by several million more in 2016. It has been a bloody battle, with a number of forces battling the Syrian government and each other; external powers each have their own favored faction. It would be nice to say that they are united in desiring the defeat of Assad, but that would overstate their common interests. In many cases, they — or their backers — seek power for themselves instead.

The opposition's failure to unite makes it easier for Assad and his backers. They, along with the rest of the world, know that the Islamic State militants are the genuine threat to peace and stability in the Middle East. Rather than focus on that threat, however, they have instead targeted moderate opposition forces in hopes of eliminating any internationally acceptable alternative to Assad. Assad is betting that if he defeats the moderate rebel groups, outside powers will either back him or give up the fight. That is why Russian forces have targeted virtually every group but the Islamic State radicals since Moscow entered the conflict in force in September 2015, and turned the tide of the battle.