Everyone agrees that a ceasefire and a political settlement are necessary for Syria. Too many people have been displaced; too much destruction has been wrought on this country. Syria is, in many ways, broken. War has led nowhere and none of the actors can credibly claim victory now, or hope for a final victory later. Everyone has been defeated in Syria.
In 1965, Patrick Seale, an Irish journalist, wrote in his The Struggle for Syria, that the country had become “a mirror of rival interests on an international scale.” Regional powers have vied for this great prize. The 2011 uprising easily morphed, therefore, into a battleground for regional interests — with Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. rushing in to form their own proxies, as Iran and Russia joined in to help the government. Russia’s military intervention a few weeks ago was designed less to hit Islamic State targets and more to pressure Qatari, Turkish, Saudi and al-Qaeda proxies along the western axis of Syria. Cooperation with the U.S. to prevent any mid-air accidents and coordination with Iraq and Jordan over air strikes suggest acquiescence with the Russian project. Russian aircraft and ground forces closed off the possibility of Western-backed regime change in Syria. It, therefore, forced the regional powers to reconsider their commitment to regime change. Bashar al-Assad’s journey to Moscow in late October indicated that the Syrian government no longer fears a precipitous removal. The state institutions and the coalition that runs them are confident that they will remain intact.
The Vienna meetings of the regional powers with the U.S. and Russia on October 23 and October 30 opened up a new diplomatic page. In 2012, these regional powers had created a Syria Contact Group, which met in Cairo. That Group was not permitted to make an impact because of the West’s insistence on regime change. Now — with regime change off the table — diplomacy has been allowed to proceed. Though the communiqué from the Vienna meeting was anodyne, far more was established. Saudi Arabia was the least invested in any dialogue but did not leave the table. The Saudis are already overstretched in Yemen and unable to move a more robust agenda for their proxies in Syria. They require a way to walk away from this war. Turkey too is not capable of honouring its pledge to remove Mr. Assad. Ten days ago, a Turkish diplomat told me that his government was now willing to consider a political process because the Russians have guaranteed Mr. Assad’s departure after six months. This guarantee is the basis for the political process. The re-election of the AKP or the Justice and Development Party in Turkey does not suggest that it would snub the Russian offer. Too much is at stake for the Turks to remain outside this process.
Mr. Assad is no longer the issue. Western capitals now acknowledge he is personally weak. What they fear is the collapse of Syrian state institutions. To push harder against Mr. Assad might risk the destruction of these institutions. The process of a political settlement will have to come with him because insistence on his departure has lengthened the process and threatened the state institutions. The political transition will have to come with Mr. Assad in place, but with guarantees of his departure within a specified — but secret — timeframe. This is the view of the Russians and the Iranians.
Reuters quoted Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Amir Abollahian as saying, “Iran does not insist on keeping Mr. Assad in power forever.” Tehran hastily denied this statement. But privately Iranian diplomats agree that they are less interested in Mr. Assad himself than in the maintenance of Iranian influence in the region. The 2003 U.S. removal of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Iran’s adversary, allowed Iran to build links to West Asia. The West tried to push Iran back to its borders through the U.S. 2005 Syria Accountability Act, the 2006 Israeli bombing of Lebanon (to strike at Hezbollah) and the sanctions regime against Iran’s nuclear programme. None of this has succeeded. The West had to surrender the sanctions and agree that Iran can have a role in the region. That is what the Iranians see as their victory. In six months, they say, there will be some kind of political readjustment in Syria. No one — least of all the Russians and the Iranians — want to define the terms of the transition. They continue to say that this is a task for the Syrian people.
Elections amid chaos
When Mr. Assad returned from Moscow, he announced early elections as a way to signal this six-month timetable. The second Vienna meeting echoed this statement. The idea of “elections” is, of course, merely symbolic. Half of Syria’s population is displaced, a major population center (Aleppo) is a battlefield and IS holds another city (Raqqa). The last election in 2014 was held in areas controlled by Damascus and amongst refugees who were willing to vote in Syrian embassies abroad. United Nations General-Secretary Ban ki-Moon warned that the election of 2014 would “damage the political process.” At the time, the political process was already in abeyance. People whom I met on the streets who had voted in the election said that they voted not for Mr. Assad but for stability. They wanted the war to end then. It did not. It would be difficult to see the current call for elections as anything other than an indication of the new balance of forces, with the President gesturing for an opening to the opposition.
But what is left of the stalwart opposition? This April one of the oppositional figures — Louay Hussein, who heads Building the Syrian State — fled to Spain. In al-Hayat, Mr. Hussein had argued that vast areas of the country and many communities “would probably find it hard to rejoin a central state, even with al-Assad absent.” This is a prescient assessment. The opposition is as fragmented as the country. Deep divides prevent the “Damascus Opposition” (those who remained in the capital) from building unity with the external opposition, notably the Syrian National Council, which has lost its following inside Syria.
In January, the new leader of the external opposition, Khaled Khoja, told the Lebanese newspaper an-Nahar that his coalition had become “marginal.” At that time, Mr. Khoja said that he would not join a Moscow-backed dialogue. The Assad government, he said, would be alone at the table. But Mr. Khoja has neither been able to unite the opposition nor make close links with militants on the ground. He had pinned his hopes on breaking the alliance between Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaeda. Since this has not worked out, he has little to show for his efforts. Other developments have left Mr. Khoja — and his Turkish and Gulf Arab backers — on the sidelines.
The Council’s previous head, Mu’az al-Khatib (former Imam of Damascus’ Umayyad mosque), although bitter at Damascus, is most likely to lead some kind of opposition platform toward a dialogue. By al-Khatib’s side would possibly be the left-leaning National Coordination Body for Democratic Change, led by Hassan Abdul Azim. This January, five secular fronts, including the National Coordination Body, met in Cairo to pledge themselves towards a political solution “reached through negotiations” and towards a platform to “awaken and mobilise Syrians in the fight against terrorist organisations inside Syria.”
The gap between what this meeting called for and what Mr. Assad believes is now very narrow. Among this team would be the well-regarded academic Haytham Manna, who was once deputy to Hassan Abdul Azim. Over this summer, Mr. Manna said, “For four years we have assassinated every political initiative in Syria. We need to go back to a normal political life. We need to stop this dirty war.” It is likely that these figures — and some who have been keeping a low profile over this past year (such as the aristocratic defector, Manaf Tlass) — will take advantage of this new opportunity.
Between the Vienna meetings, Oman’s Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi visited Damascus. Oman was the secret post-office for the U.S.-Iran backchannel negotiations. In August, Syria’s Foreign Minister, Walid Muallem, visited Muscat. This is the return trip. Oman’s diplomats are likely carrying messages to Damascus from the U.S.and, perhaps, Saudi Arabia. Often, in these matters, the real work gets done with a wink and a nod. For Syria’s sake, with IS at the doorstep of Homs, one hopes that these are not empty gestures.
This essay originally appeared in The Hindu.