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Week in Review: Stalled Talks and Assad’s Reelection Push a Policy Rethink

This weekend saw a breakthrough in diplomacy and practical action around Syria’s crisis, in the form of a unanimous U.N. Security Council resolution on humanitarian aid.

Written by Lara Setrakian Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

The document, which the New York Times posted here, calls for all parties to allow the unimpeded delivery of assistance; the Syrian government had been accused of blocking humanitarian access to rebel-held and opposition-friendly areas, while the presence of extremist rebel groups has complicated efforts to reach those in desperate conditions. That’s left over 3 million Syrians stranded in hard-to-reach areas, according to the U.N., while a wider 9.3 million people need urgent help (roughly half of Syria’s population).

While the resolution isn’t immediately enforceable, it does cite “the intent to take further steps in the case of non-compliance”—a hint of potential future consequences. It is an opening for the West, as it looks to hold President Bashar al Assad accountable for his part in the conflict. The hope is to apply enough pressure to break the status quo, to advance a political solution toward a transition of power that can stabilize the country.

They face the intransigence of Assad himself, who’s come away confident after Geneva talks and remains generally uninterested in leaving power. This week pro-government crowds held demonstrations in support of Assad, with voices calling for him to renew his mandate as president. To do so, the regime has two options: either hold elections, with Assad running against generally weak domestic political opponents, or extend Assad’s rule unilaterally, by extending his term for two years with parliamentary approval.

In an alternative scenario, if the regime is effectively prodded by Russia and Iran, it could use the occasion to gradually engineer a political transition – to introduce a managed shift toward a new order, still with Assad at the helm, but in a way that opens to the participation of emerging leaders. It looks far from today’s reality, as the regime derides the opposition Syrian National Coalition and squelches its opponents at home. But that kind of regime-sponsored transition is currently the optimal end game, in a conflict that is costing its participants and their patrons dearly.

Syria’s political timeline is such that the government would likely announce its course of action by late March; if elections are due they’d be called in May or June, before a new presidential term begins in July. That decision will be a significant trigger point – either an opportunity to engineer political change, or step to further polarize the country, crystallizing divisions between regime and rebel-held areas.

That timing is partly why Syria policy is now getting a rethink, in Washington and beyond. The U.S. is assessing a more muscular approach to Syria, to the point of potentially reviving the option of military action; Syria’s delayed delivery of its chemical weapons could become a key point of contention. In alignment with U.S. objectives, Saudi Arabia is consolidating its Syria file under Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the Interior Minister, in a bid to bring extremist rebel groups under control. Meanwhile the Syrian opposition itself is aiming to gain strategic ground, naming a new rebel commander and effectively shifting the focus to Syria’s southern front, to the part of the country that includes Damascus and its key arteries. If the Saudi promise of anti-aircraft weapons gets delivered, it would amplify their punch at Assad’s aerial power.

Collectively, the pressure they apply is aimed at changing the calculus in Damascus – and in Moscow and Tehran – toward a compromise. How effectively that can happen is an open question. The rebels have lacked for effective organization and coordination; now they face a new rift over the removal of General Selim Idris. The ceasefires around Damascus appear to be less about reconciliation and more a factor of rebel capitulation – fatigued rebel fighters giving in to quiet wins for the regime. Where the regime does exercise control, Assad’s security establishment and his paramilitary National Defense Force are increasing in influence.

For now, the choice of a Syrian political transition still rests with the regime itself, which has stalled at making progress. That’s why the world is looking for new ways to approach it, with a fresh set of carrot and sticks.

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