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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 October 2018

Talks suggest the endgame is afoot in Syrian crisis

Michael Young says recent diplomatic and military moves suggest we are entering the endgame in Syria
With Bashar Al Assad’s foes gaining, all eyes have been on diplomacy in recent weeks. AFP
With Bashar Al Assad’s foes gaining, all eyes have been on diplomacy in recent weeks. AFP

With the Syrian regime losing ground in the Ghab Plain and Qaryatayn last week, the protagonists in Syria are slowly preparing for the aftermath of the conflict. Few believe president Bashar Al Assad can prevail in the war, and even he conceded his army’s difficulties late last month.

With Mr Al Assad’s foes gaining, all eyes have been on diplomacy in recent weeks. Russian, Saudi and American officials have met in Qatar, the Russian and Saudi foreign ministers met in Moscow on Monday, and Russia mediated a recent meeting in Jeddah between the Saudi deputy crown prince and defence minister, Mohammed bin Salman, and the head of Syria’s National Security Bureau, Ali Mamlouk.

Even Iran has offered a plan for a political solution in Syria. Two things are apparent in these exchanges: Mr Al Assad’s vulnerabilities have prompted his allies to begin a process of finding a negotiated outcome in Syria that could potentially save him and prevent a power vacuum that benefits extremists; and the Syrian president has become increasingly irrelevant, his fate almost entirely in the hands of others.

Mr Al Assad’s enemies have sensed this, which is why they have raised the pressure on his regime. The progress of Jaysh Al Fatah, a coalition of opposition forces including the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Al Nusra, in the Ghab Plain on the weekend was highly significant. The plain borders the Alawite heartland and now the rebels have the option of heading southward toward Hama or westward into Alawite districts.

The ISIL advance into Qaryatayn was, by most accounts, an effort to link up with militants already in the Qalamoun district bordering Lebanon. That would allow the group to cut the vital Damascus-Homs highway, position men in Qalamoun for an offensive against Damascus, and challenge Jaysh Al Fatah and others in shaping the aftermath of Mr Al Assad’s downfall.

In the south of Syria, reports have suggested that the Jordanians are thinking along similar lines. They want to ensure that extremists do not take control of the Syrian capital. That may explain why ISIL, under increasing attack in northern Syria, saw a need to capture new areas in Homs to guarantee that it is not marginalised in the Syrian endgame.

Little has filtered out on the tenor of the diplomatic deliberations, and what has is often politically manipulated. While accounts of Mr Mamlouk’s visit to Saudi Arabia were published in Lebanon’s pro-Hizbollah Al Akhbar newspaper, last Saturday the Saudi daily Al Hayat ran its own version to counter it.

According to Al Hayat, the Saudis linked Mr Al Assad’s fate to a Syrian political process. For one to begin, however, a primary condition is the withdrawal of Iran and Shia militias from Syria in exchange for an end to Saudi support for the opposition, “so the solution [can be] a Syrian-Syrian one”.

In its version, Al Akhbar did not go into details, saying only that the meeting failed. Yet if the Saudi condition is true, it is also subtle. It effectively invites the Syrian president to regain authority over his country from Iran. At the same time, the Saudis allegedly insisted they did not demand a severing of ties between Damascus and Tehran.

By keeping Mr Al Assad’s destiny vague, the proposal fudges over a major obstacle to the negotiations, even if the Saudis insist the Syrian leader must ultimately go. It is interesting that Al Akhbar underlined that Russia did not believe Mr Al Assad could be removed. To buy time for Mr Al Assad, Moscow has sought to create an antiterrorism coalition including Syria and Saudi Arabia. However, last week the Gulf countries rejected it.

The Russian attitude toward Mr Al Assad is likely to be more nuanced, Al Akhbar’s account notwithstanding. Moscow is said to have been unhappy that the Syrian president undermined its efforts to initiate dialogue between the regime and moderate opposition groups. Yet it does not want Mr Al Assad’s removal to be a prerequisite of a political accord even if it knows that for as long as he stays in power a solution will be near impossible.

Increasingly, Russia’s view of events in Syria seems at odds with Iran’s. Where the Iranians have exacerbated Syria’s fragmentation to preserve Assad rule, Russia believes this has created an ideal environment for extremists, many of whom hail from Central Asia and the Caucasus and may later threaten Russia.

Some observers believe the recent military victories by Jaysh Al Fatah were aimed less at bringing about a collapse of the regime than to impose a political solution. That may be true. Most parties, with the exception of ISIL, seek a managed transition in Syria, not a destructive free-for-all as in Afghanistan after 1988.

Things are accelerating in Syria, even if the contours of a political settlement remain uncertain. We are at a stage where regional and international powers are manoeuvring to determine what others will accept. But for the first time we are seeing not the end of the war in Syria, but maybe some hints of an end.

Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut

On Twitter @BeirutCalling