Following the play-by-play, one saw a slow progression – a diplomatic process inching forward, through the barbs of a recalcitrant regime, disagreements over aid deliveries to Homs, a renewal of U.S. aid to rebels on the ground, and just a touch of talk about a political transition.
In theory, that political transition to end the rule of President Bashar al-Assad is the premise and central goal of the talks; in reality, it’s the stiffest topic to tackle. The two sides, the regime and the opposition, shared no common ground in discussing Syria’s political future. Not shockingly, the regime has been slow to negotiate its own extinction.
Even so, just the start of a process raises some notion of its end. As participants and observers look out on a long diplomatic road – talks pause on Friday, due to resume after a week – their practical focus is on the real factors that can change the state of play in Syria.
By way of a turning point potentially on the horizon, there’s the notional presidential election, scheduled for July. Assad has hinted he would run for re-election; one former regime official tells us he’s just as likely to extend his term unilaterally for another two years, with the constitutional blessing of a parliament he comfortably controls. While diplomatic sources say his Syrian army is under significant strain, the flood of Shiite militias fighting on his behalf have shored up his military advantage, while a strategy of choosing his battles and outsourcing the fight to localized warlords is apparently working.
So what could change the picture? The same former official says Iran and Syria are so closely aligned they functionally act as one unit. That leaves Russia to potentially change the equation. Russia still has significant influence in Damascus; the removal of its “political umbrella” would force the regime to change its position, and ultimately its composition.
That means it’s little surprise that the opposition has started to take a more practical and conciliatory position towards Moscow. This week, the Wall Street Journal reports that Syria’s opposition is “trying to drive a wedge between the regime and its most powerful foreign backer,” by assuring Russia that its military and strategic interests would be maintained under any transitional government – respected in any future Syria. The former Syrian official described it as the requisite amount of “boot licking” that needs to be done, to win over the regime’s Russian patrons.
The efforts may be working. Ahmed Jarba told the Journal “that he had received assurances from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that Moscow wasn’t wedded to its longtime ally.” Russia has long said the same in private meetings; more holistically, what matters to Moscow is an alternative to Assad that meets their strategic needs. A Russian-friendly, Alawite-inclusive transitional government could be in the making, maintaining key institutions of the state and even holding over regime stalwarts who pull a vast array strings (like Ali Mamlouk, whose name comes up from many a Syria analyst). The thinking is that you can’t dismantle what currently exists; you can only decapitate it and remove the least palatable elements, to some cushy retirement in exile.
That’s all in the realm of theory, but it’s the directional goal for Geneva talks and the more subtle meetings that happen around it. Meanwhile, in its bid for survival, the regime isn’t doing itself any favors; Reuters reports that the Syrian government “has given up less than five percent of its chemical weapons arsenal and will miss next week’s deadline to send all toxic agents abroad for destruction.”
This week also showed how events are quickly and consequentially shifting on the ground. Kurds declared the semi-autonomous region of Rojava, a northwestern province; the FT called it “a big step in what many see as a break-up of the country.” AFP reported that Assad’s army is making small but important gains on the battlegrounds of southeastern Aleppo. The New York Times covered U.S. claims that rebel groups have seized most of Syria’s oil and gas resources, a rare money generator in Syria’s battered war economy. The Washington Post cited the dangers posed by hundreds of European jihadists currently in Syria, whom British officials fear will return to carry out attacks on home soil.
Syrians continue to suffer, while their ancient heritage is reduced to rubble (The Guardian carried this before-and-after photo essay of some of Syria’s best-known historic buildings and UNESCO sites, many destroyed by the fighting. Economists and level-headed Syrians tell us it will take a decade, if not a generation to restore Syria to where it was before the uprising. But as the state of Syria’s great monuments might suggest, some things are already irrevocably lost.