The Middle East Channel

The end game in Syria

Even as the Assad regime pursues Syria's descent into a sectarian wasteland, its cruelty cannot obscure a discernible shift in the violent stalemate between the regime and the revolution that has endured for the past year. In recent months, the erosion of the Assad regime has acquired new momentum. The regime may have retaken the ruins of Douma, yet its military is unraveling both from below and, increasingly, from above. The defection of Brigadier General Manaf Tlass, once a close friend of President Bashar al-Assad, has exposed deepening rifts among the regime's inner circles. Tlass's defection will not be the last.

The armed opposition, on the other hand, is becoming better coordinated and more effective. The Turkish military is massing on the Syrian border. Turkey's government gives an increasingly free reign to opposition fighters who use its territory as a de facto safe haven. Sanctions have driven Syria's economy into a freefall. The business communities of Damascus and Aleppo have largely "flipped," though without the public disavowals of the Assads that the West would prefer.

These trends all point to one conclusion: the end of the Assad regime is drawing nearer. The relevant question is no longer whether the regime will fall, but when and, even more importantly, how. If the exact timing of its demise cannot be predicted, there are nonetheless growing indications that governments opposed to the Assad regime, and even those still supporting it, are increasingly concerned with how to manage the end game in Syria and protect their interests in a post-Assad era.

This new emphasis was evident in the June 30 Geneva meetings between the United States, Russia, and Joint Special Envoy Kofi Annan, in the Cairo meeting of the Syrian opposition on July 2 and 3 under the auspices of the Arab League, and in the Friends of Syria meeting in Paris on July 6. It has manifested through three significant shifts. One of the three is playing out in full public view, and underscores why both the United States and Russians continue to find value in Annan's work despite his failure to deliver meaningful results. The other two are less visible but not less important. They shed useful light on how the United States is working to manage the end game in Syria through an opposition that it continues to view as hopelessly fragmented, but now acknowledges, grudgingly, that it must work with nonetheless.

First, there has been a growing stress in U.S. and Russian diplomacy on efforts to ensure that a transition happens through negotiations rather than regime collapse. Negotiations have been a cornerstone of U.S. policy toward Syria since the uprising began. They have acquired new significance, however, in part because they hold out hope of mitigating the chaos and violence that is expected to follow Assad's demise, but also because they offer virtually the only way in which the United States might be able to influence how a transition unfolds -- a process that is now seen as far more imminent than it was only a few months ago -- and, potentially, establish a counterweight to regional actors who have invested far more heavily than Washington in cultivating Syrian clients and have their own ideas about where a post-Assad transition should lead. Recent shifts in Russian policy in favor of negotiations reflect a similar logic. Without negotiations in which regime figures close to Russia play an active role, Moscow stands little hope of preserving its position in a post-Assad Syria.

In her comments at the Friends of Syria meeting in Paris, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reinforced this new emphasis on negotiations, praising the agreement reached in the meeting Annan brokered in Geneva on June 30. For the first time, she noted, Russia accepted that a political transition must occur, and for the first time, the agreement places the Syrian opposition on an equal footing with the Syrian government -- without, however, designating any particular group within the opposition as "the" legitimate counterpart of the regime in negotiations.

Later, Russian President Vladimir Putin added his voice to the negotiations chorus. On July 9 he stressed the need for Assad to enter negotiations, saying "We must do as much as possible to force the conflicting sides to reach a peaceful political solution to all contentious questions." To buttress his point, Russia also announced that it was suspending new arms contracts with Syria "until the situation calms down." Bashar seems to have gotten the message. On the same day that Putin spoke, Kofi Annan reported that he had secured Assad's agreement to a negotiating framework -- though did not release any further details. Even as it continues providing Assad with arms and supplies under existing contracts, the Kremlin no longer seems willing to bet the house on Assad's survival. After 16 months, and even as the regime continues its assault on Syrian civilians, the prospects for some form of negotiations are gaining serious momentum.

Second, the Arab League, the United States, and core Friends of Syria governments are working to equip the Syrian opposition to engage in negotiations, elevating the priority they attach to transition planning among the opposition. The core purpose of the Cairo conference, which it (miraculously) achieved, was to secure agreement on a bare bones transition strategy that all factions of the opposition could endorse. This focus carried over into the Friends of Syria meeting in Paris. Representatives of several opposition groups addressed transition planning, and Abdel Baset Sayda, president of the Syrian National Council (SNC), publicly endorsed "The Day After" plan, a document developed by Syrian opposition activists who worked together in Berlin over a period of six months to craft a detailed transition strategy (Full disclosure: USIP and the German Institute for International and Security Affairs facilitated the series of Berlin meetings that generated The Day After document).

Third, the Arab League, the United States, and other key actors have begun to downplay their demand for opposition unity, acknowledging, however reluctantly, that fragmentation can no longer be an obstacle to engagement. Instead, unity has been overtaken as a priority by an interest in securing opposition consensus on how to manage the challenges of regime transition. In Cairo, the Arab League unilaterally appointed a Preparatory Committee, essentially compelling opposition figures who would not normally sit in the same room to spend almost two weeks working together to develop the transition documents that were later approved by the full conference. The Friends meeting in Paris was also notable for the absence of discussions about opposition unity. In place of unity talk, member states showed more interest in strengthening the position of individuals seen as potential leaders in future negotiations, whatever faction of the opposition they might represent.

Competition to define a post-Assad transition will only accelerate as the fall of the regime grows nearer. Whether these efforts will pay off for the United States or for Russia, however, is uncertain. The scale of Russian support for the regime poses severe obstacles to Moscow's future influence in a post-Assad Damascus, while the limits of U.S. support for the opposition will likely constrain Washington's future influence, as well. Moreover, there are regional players in the game and they enjoy significant advantages. For the United States to maximize its leverage it would need to overcome its reluctance to support the armed opposition, yet this remains a large step further than Washington is willing to go. Not least, there are revolutionary forces on the ground, that have no intention of permitting Syria's future to be dictated by outsiders, who, together with the external opposition, have little confidence in Kofi Annan and are appropriately cynical about efforts to force them into negotiations with elements of the Assad regime. In this critical period, the Syrian opposition remains a diffuse and elusive target in Washington's efforts to manage the end game in Syria.

Steven Heydemann is a senior advisor at the US Institute of Peace's Middle East Initiatives. 

JACQUES BRINON/AFP/GettyImages

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