A flurry of meetings is taking place as stakeholders in the Syrian conflict attempt to work out a power-sharing agreement to replace the government of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Russia has been driving the negotiation, while Oman acts as a neutral mediator relaying messages to and from Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia and the United States. Though the diplomatic activity is picking up, it is still an outside effort divorced from the reality of the battlefield, where Syrian rebels are fighting the al Assad government on their own terms.
Following a trip to Tehran, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, who has been leading the negotiations on behalf of the al Assad government, traveled to Muscat, where he met with his counterpart, Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah. Though Saudi Arabia has preferred to keep these negotiations more private, the Syrian government is eager to telegraph its involvement in such meetings to boost its legitimacy after years of diplomatic isolation.
The discussion between al-Moallem and bin Alawi allegedly centered on an exit strategy for al Assad. The Syrian government knows that proposing elections in which al Assad runs is a non-starter for negotiations with the Sunni powers, but al Assad is still angling for a graceful exit. Negotiating amnesty for al Assad will be a challenge, however. It is still unclear just how flexible the United States will be on the subject, especially with charges against al Assad pending over his government's use of chemical weapons and other war crimes. Syria has signed but not ratified the International Criminal Court's Rome statute, the founding document for the International Criminal Court, which means the country falls outside its jurisdiction. Unless a future Syrian government ratified the Rome statute or somehow accepted the court's authority, the only way the ICC could bring suit against Syria would be if the United Nations Security Council referred the case to it. However, this is unlikely as long as Russia retains its veto power, which will come in handy during amnesty negotiations. The possibility of a subsequent government charging al Assad in the ICC will also complicate where he can take refuge as part of any deal.
Meanwhile, the dialogue over the political transition continues. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif will head to Turkey on Aug. 11 and then to Moscow later in the month. Russia will also host another round of talks with the highly fragmented Syrian National Council opposition coalition. Multiple factors have been speeding up negotiations: loyalist forces in Syria are suffering setbacks, the United States is trying to avoid a power vacuum in Damascus, and Russia is trying to strike a diplomatic win over Syria. Our assessment remains, however, that these negotiations are largely disconnected from the reality on the battlefield. Sunni rebel forces have the momentum in the fight and are unlikely to agree to a deal at this stage, much less cede power to controversial Sunni figures such as Tlass who have lived comfortably in Paris while others continued the fight in Syria. For this negotiation to yield an effective outcome, it will be vital that Syrian rebel factions get involved.
Briefly mentioned by me before, there is also the Qatar pipeline which is of strategic importance in what now is the ISIS theater.
Fighting on the ground seen problematic for Damascus
Two ongoing offensives in Syria, staged by Jaish al-Fatah and the Islamic State, are problematic for Damascus as it scrambles to contain multiple threats. Loyalist forces are spread thin across many fronts but still doggedly attempting to defend their positions and mount counterattacks.
Having largely secured Idlib province, Jaish al-Fatah is now channeling its efforts into pushing down through the strategic Sahl al-Ghab plain corridor in northwest Hama province. Securing the plain would improve rebel access to Latakia province while positioning them for a combined assault on the rest of Hama province alongside other rebels positioned close to the town of Morek.
Against considerable loyalist forces massed on the Sahl al-Ghab plain, supported by large numbers of artillery and armored units, fighting has devolved into fluid battles comprising numerous attacks and counterattacks. The overall advantage lies with the rebels, who are adept at using the heights around the plain to their advantage, relying heavily on anti-tank guided missiles to neutralize the government's superiority in armor. Over the last 48 hours, the rebels succeeded in taking the village of Bahsa, and are moving towards Joureen. If they can maintain their progress and take Joureen itself, the rebels would be able to largely isolate the remaining loyalist forces, essentially securing control over the plain.
Meanwhile, the Islamic State capitalized on its inherent mobility and staged a successful surprise offensive, seizing the crossroads town of al-Qaryatayn, not far from Homs. The Islamic State is attempting to hold off a loyalist offensive to take back the ancient city of Palmyra. The militant group's offensive on al-Qaryatayn fundamentally undermines the loyalist advance toward Palmyra by hitting the outer lines of Damascus' forces on the flank and threatening essential supply lines feeding the loyalist advance. With al-Qaryatayn taken, currently the loyalists only have access to one road to reinforce their vital T4 Airbase and support the push on Palmyra.
The flurry of diplomacy suggests that Russia and the United States, whose differences have long jammed efforts to resolve the conflict, are making newly concerted strides toward goals they have long claimed to share: a political solution to Syria’s multisided civil war and better strategies to fight the Islamic State.
Of course Assad is not yet ready to leave, and the rebels may not be in the mood for a compromise agreement even if he does. But for the first time Moscow, and possibly Tehran, seem willing to talk about the idea, and even Assad is prepared to listen.
He would require amnesty from being prosecuted at an international court. This week’s UN Security Council vote agreeing to investigate the use of chemical weapons in Syria potentially complicates matters, but exile in Russia or Iran would still be an option. Syria has not ratified the charter of the International Criminal Court and so falls outside the ICC’s jurisdiction.
If the outline of such a compromise could be worked out there would still be the problem of who in the Syrian regime would remain to share power with the rebel groups during an interim phase before some sort of election years down the line.
All the above is complicated enough, but would be rendered meaningless if the rebel groups refused to co-operate and demanded outright victory. However, if the different sides’ various backers can be persuaded a deal is for the best, the rebels could be brought round with reminders of who it is that arms, trains, and funds them.
There would still be the problem of what to do about ISIL and other international jihadist groups in Syria. However, if the other rebels were only fighting on one front, and what support the jihadist groups receives dried up, the rebels would over time be victorious.
There’s a long way to go. If this month’s tentative negotiations are not derailed then talks can continue in the autumn when there is always a flurry of diplomatic meetings culminating in the United Nations General Assembly where, for a week, all the main players are in one place at the same time.
The idea may not survive until then, the battlefield may make it irrelevant, but right now, the vague outlines of a new effort to end the Syrian war are emerging.