A Syrian soldier, who has defected to join the Free Syrian Army. (REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah)

Prospects for a peaceful settlement of the civil war in Syria are dim, despite the peace conference expected to take place next month in Geneva, jointly sponsored by the United States and Russia. It’s unclear, yet, whether either side—the Syrian government or the rebels—will participate, though both are under great pressure from their respective patrons. If the conference fails, President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry and the Russian leaders, Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, will have egg on their faces. Worse, of course, the killing will continue.

This week, Kerry will meet with the troublesome and fractious opposition movement in Jordan. His job there will be to persuade the rebels not to boycott the conference. That task could, conceivably, have the happy effect of splitting the opposition into moderate and radical factions—but just as well it could result in the opposition as a whole deciding not to talk to the government of President Assad. However, if the Syrian government agrees to take part, under pressure from Moscow, and the rebels don’t, it will be very, very difficult for the United States to continue supporting the rebels, at least in their present form.

As The New York Times says, in an editorial today:

[Kerry] will need to do a better job of clarifying the American vision, and organizing the allies, than Washington has done so far. The opposition forces are scheduled to meet in Istanbul on Thursday, followed by an Arab League meeting in Cairo. For the opposition to boycott the conference would hand a significant propaganda victory to Mr. Assad.

Meanwhile, on the battlefield, it appears that the Syrian government is making significant progress, bolstered by arms from Russia and Iran and taking advantage, perhaps, of disarray among the opposition. The Wall Street Journal reports today that the battle for Qusayr, a small city with strategic importance between the Lebanese border and Homs, Syria, could be a “turning point” in the war, tipping the balance in Assad’s favor. It says:

The bloody battle over the city of Qusayr, near the Lebanese border, has the potential to transform Syria’s conflict, say fighters, diplomats and analysts. A government victory there could give the regime of President Bashar al-Assad a corridor of territory connecting Damascus to Syria’s pro-Assad coastline and to Lebanese territory controlled by Iran-backed Hezbollah. This would split rebel forces into fragmented strongholds.

The article quotes a Western diplomat thus:

“The entire paradigm has shifted” in Syria’s conflict, a Western diplomat said, describing the government’s push into Qusayr as the latest in a string of “confident, defiant and strategic moves.”

That’s a far cry from the expectation, two years ago, that the Syrian version of the Arab Spring movement that topped rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen would make short work of Assad.

The Los Angeles Times, in a parallel report titled “Syrian military shows unexpected resilience,” says that rebels elsewhere in Syria, outside Qusayr, are worried that the government will move against their positions next.It’s worth quoting the piece at length:

The military onslaught this week against the strategic Syrian town of Qusair has dramatized a surprising combat resilience that has already put rebel forces on the defensive on other key fronts, including near the capital, Damascus.

The military’s still-robust fighting ability—apparently bolstered in Qusair by the presence of combatants from Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group—has confounded predictions from experts and foreign capitals that the Syrian government’s days were numbered.

Some are recalibrating their forecasts of the regime’s certain demise, even as Russia and the United States try to organize an international conference meant to jump-start peace talks and create a transitional government in Syria.

In recent weeks, forces loyal to President Bashar Assad have scored significant victories in the south and north.

In the media, much is being made of the fact that Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia backed by Syria and Iran, is taking part in the fighting. While the reports are mostly accurate, the main Syrian fighting force is the state’s own armed forces, who are being supplied readily by Iran and, especially, Russia. Russia’s support, which is routinely demonized in the Western media, can be a good thing, because it gives Russia leverage over Assad in the peace conference. But the success of that conference will depend on whether or not the United States is willing to exercise similar leverage over the rebels, more and more of whom are jihadist-influenced Sunni radicals and Al Qaeda types.

Nation contributor Sharif Abdel Kouddous takes you right to the middle of the Syrian conflict