Russia has played the most prominent public role so far in the new diplomacy. Some analysts say that the discussion reflects a softening of the Obama administration’s long-held position that “Assad must go,” and a fear, shared with Russia, that the Islamic State could be the primary beneficiary if Mr. Assad’s government continues to weaken, as they expect, or even to collapse entirely, which they view as less likely but increasingly possible.
The Syrian government has been jarred by a series of defeats on the battlefield and difficulty recruiting for its forces, even among members of Mr. Assad’s minority Alawite sect. Having lost large sections of the country to the Islamic State and various rebel forces, it is concentrating its remaining military strength in the capital, Damascus, and other crucial cities in western Syria.
Mr. Assad’s opponents, too, have reason to reassess strategy; American efforts to build a proxy force in Syria have largely failed, insurgent groups have their own attrition problems, and Saudi Arabia and Turkey face political and security blowback at home.
As the military situation continues to deteriorate, the major powers are growing increasingly nervous. Emile Hokayem, a Middle East analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies and a vociferous critic of Mr. Assad, said the United States was letting Russia take the lead because “they don’t want to own this.” If anything, Mr. Hokayem added, “it’s the United States that has moved closer to Russia’s position” that Mr. Assad could be part of the transitional government that is the stated goal of any negotiations.
Regional news outlets have attributed the outburst of diplomatic activity to the aftermath of the tentative nuclear deal with Iran, which has “has thrown a great stone into the region’s waters,” as the Jordanian newspaper Al Ghad put it. The pan-Arab daily Rai al-Youm went so far as to declare that “a political resolution is taking shape with notable speed.”
But analysts in the region, across the political spectrum, strongly caution that no breakthroughs can be expected soon. Fundamental disconnects remain, and in the diplomatic dance, each side claims that its adversaries are coming around to its point of view.I put in bold the last paragraph because these diplomatic flurries on Syria are periodic, and they follow the same general pattern. The U.S. is said to realize that only ISIS will benefit from a collapse of the Baathist Syrian state, while Russia is said to accept that Assad might have to vacate the seat of government. Then the war continues.
What seems to be different now is that Turkey, in blowback from the war in Syria, has shredded its ceasefire with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and is now engaged in a civil war of its own.
An excellent article by Rukmini Callimachi ("Inside Syria: Kurds Roll Back ISIS, but Alliances Are Strained") that appeared on Monday clearly shows that the Marxist Kurds working in concert with U.S. air power have figured out how to beat the Salafist jihadis. Fearing that the Syrian Kurd People's Protection Units (YPG) would completely roll back ISIS and control the territory along the Turkish border from Aleppo to the border with Iraq, Turkey cut a deal with the U.S. to enter the war against ISIS. What this really was was a declaration of war against the PKK.
What also appears to be different this go-round is the realization that any additional setbacks for the Syrian government will translate into more refugees fleeing to Europe. Barnard acknowledges this when she says, "What is nonetheless taking place internationally is a shift in tone, a sense of movement below the surface. That alone is notable in a context of divides that can seem unbridgeable, after four and a half years of fighting that has killed at least a quarter-million people and driven the worst refugee crisis in a generation."
Based on a reading of the Saudi press, Barnard provides the contours of what a deal on Syria might look like:
The pro-government newspaper Al Watan noted that at last week’s three-way meeting in Qatar, Secretary of State John Kerry did not repeat the American demand that Mr. Assad step aside. He declared only that the Syrian leader had “lost his legitimacy.”
And even the Saudi newspaper Al Watan — no connection to the Syrian one — used a notable phrase, saying that while Mr. Assad’s government was to blame for Syria’s troubles, a solution could come “ either by reforming it, or by removing it immediately, or in stages.”
Such shifts have driven an emerging theory about the outlines of an eventual compromise — albeit one that could take years to achieve.
The gist is that a new government would be formed including elements of the current government — perhaps including Mr. Assad for a finite period — and moderate Syrian opposition figures. The army would absorb some insurgents from relatively moderate groups. Alawites and majority Sunnis would both be represented.
Then, as the Syrian analyst Ibrahim Hamidi put it in the Saudi-owned pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat, “the government and army will have the necessary political legitimacy and sectarian representation to ‘unite against terrorism.’ ”
That scenario fits in with a plan that Iran put forward amid last week’s flurry of meetings, calling for an immediate cease-fire, the formation of a national unity government, a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the rights of all Syria’s ethnic and religious groups, and internationally supervised elections.Does this stop the fighting? Highly doubtful. As we see in the case of Afghanistan where the Taliban leadership is cosseted in Quetta by the Pakistani state, fighting will rage on year in and year out. But what such a deal would likely accomplish is the prevention of Damascus' fall and the resulting massive increase in an already massive influx of refugees to Europe. Something worth bargaining over.