Amid signs that the military situation is turning against the Al Assad regime, open lines of communication may ease a Syrian transition.
Outside powers seek to define Syria's endgame
When the Syrian opposition coalition announced Saturday that it would boycott the Friends of Syria conference in Rome today, this was in part blackmail to get more solid commitments of backing from western governments. The tactic may have been successful.
The opposition reversed itself on Tuesday, when it agreed to go to Rome at the insistence of the US secretary of state, John Kerry, who has begun a nine-day tour of Europe and the Middle East. The decision came after the coalition's president, Moaz Al Khatib, persuaded his comrades, at a meeting in Cairo, to change their mind and amid reports the Obama administration will begin sending non-lethal aid to the Syrian rebels.
This reversal confirmed that Mr Al Khatib retains influence, despite criticism from coalition members that his recent offer to start talks with the Syrian regime was made without consulting them.
The idea of negotiations appeals to western countries and Russia, because it is regarded as the only way to effect a smooth transition in Syria and prevent the country from breaking up into sectarian statelets.
On the same day, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al Muallim, while in Moscow, agreed to a dialogue with "those who hold the weapons". President Bashar Al Assad was clearly pressured by Russia to accept negotiations, in light of Mr Al Khatib's offer to do the same.
Many in the opposition are uncomfortable with talks, but Mr Al Khatib's hand is not as weak as it may seem. Talking to Mr Al Assad will imply a measure of legitimacy for the Syrian president, from an opposition coalition that insists he step down for his responsibility in the death of tens of thousands of Syrians. But amid signs that the military situation is turning against the regime, open lines of communication may ease a Syrian transition.
The opposition has made military gains in recent weeks, after receiving fresh supplies of weapons across the Jordanian border. These have reportedly been paid for by Saudi Arabia, and acquired from Croatia. The dual objectives of supplying better weapons is to facilitate an offensive against Damascus, the heart of the Assad regime located at a relatively short distance from the southern province of Deraa, and to reinforce Syrian opposition units not affiliated with the Al Nusra Front, which is suspected of having ties with Al Qaeda.
The military gains apparently have troubled two of Mr Al Assad's allies, Russia and Iran. Russian anxiety was probably behind the effort to persuade the Syrian regime to accept talks with the opposition. And Iranian worries that Mr Al Assad might lose control of the strategic highway linking Damascus to the coastal region, through Homs, is what prompted Hizbollah to attack villages held by Syrian rebels around Qusayr, near the Lebanese border.
The highway serves several purposes for Mr Al Assad's regime. It allows the transfer of weapons and supplies from the coast, where the Alawite community holds sway, to troops in Damascus. It is also an exit route if the Syrian regime ever decides to leave the capital. Hizbollah's intervention heightened Sunni-Shia antagonism in Syria and Lebanon, but given the risk the price was worth paying.
On what can the Americans and Russians agree? A managed transition is desirable to both countries. Russia's objective is to retain a stake in a post-Al Assad Syria. To achieve this, any eventual departure of Mr Al Assad must be negotiated, not be sudden and catastrophic, so that Moscow retains leverage to protect its friends in the regime, especially in the army and intelligence services. The Russians also do not want to see militant Islamists triumph by force, as this could wreak havoc regionally, and even lead to volatility in Muslim states neighbouring Russia.
The American position is not so very different. Washington, too, fears that chaos could destabilise neighbouring countries, and feels that a transition process will make Mr Al Assad redundant. On the other hand, in looking back at American errors in Iraq, the Obama administration seeks to preserve the Syrian army as a symbol of national unity and to maintain order once Mr Al Assad departs.
Mr Al Khatib will have to manoeuvre the opposition through this minefield of foreign desirables. For a start, he must guarantee that negotiations will not allow Mr Al Assad to remain in office. Nor can he embrace a process protecting the perpetrators of the most brutal crimes in Syria. However, a negotiated transition that brings the opposition to power is eminently attractive if it can save lives and avert sectarian fragmentation in Syria.
Here, the role of the western countries and Russia will be vital. Mr Al Khatib heard encouraging words from Mr Kerry, who suggested the United States would step up aid after the Rome meeting. Yet the US objective is to get negotiations started, not to give the opposition a means to score a military victory, which seems unlikely today. To have leverage over the opposition, however, the US must help it in some regard, and there has been speculation that Washington was informed of the dispatch of the Croatian weapons, suggesting tacit approval.
We are potentially entering a new phase in Syria, one in which political aims will be defined by military operations. If talks are held, we should at some point expect an escalation of the conflict as each side tries to shape the outcome in its favour. But a political endgame must be defined first, and that process may soon start. Whether Mr Al Assad can control it is the big question.
Michael Young is the opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut
On Twitter @BeirutCalling.