The Middle East Channel

The Outside-Inside Strategy on Syria

On the surface, the upcoming Geneva II peace talks between President Bashar al-Assad's regime and the Syrian opposition seem dead on arrival, if they even happen at all. The Syrian opposition, already deeply fractured, is now in violent internal conflict between the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the Saudi-backed Islamic Front, and the ideologically neutral Free Syrian Army (FSA). The Syrian National Coalition, the primary political wing of the opposition, is threatening to withdraw from the peace talks, which begin Wednesday, January 22, if the United Nations does not rescind its invitation for Iran to participate. All the while, Assad has announced that a negotiated end to his presidency "is not under discussion" at the talks, which calls into question what exactly the negotiating parties will be discussing and highlights just how far apart the key belligerents in the Syrian civil war are from accepting a political solution to the conflict.

The conventional wisdom is that under these circumstances, the U.S. push to build consensus and find common ground between the Assad regime and the deeply fractured opposition is deeply naïve and divorced from realities on the ground. But for all the talk about regime-opposition negotiations, the most important conversation at Geneva this week doesn't involve anyone from Syria. Instead of trying to build consensus for a political solution on Syria from the inside-out, the United States, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, appears to be trying to build consensus for a deal from the outside-in. By working out a deal between the key power brokers on Syria's future, first the United States and Russia, and then widening the circle to include critical regional players, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, the international community can eventually force a deal on the belligerents to end the Syrian civil war.

This "outside-inside strategy," as it is sometimes referred to by U.S. administration officials, requires slowly building consensus on a political resolution among the conflict's key power brokers -- regional and international actors that provide the resources and diplomatic cover for the belligerents to continue waging this proxy war. The supporters of the Syrian opposition include Western countries -- such as the United States, Britain, and France -- Gulf Arab countries -- such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, and Kuwait -- and other powerful regional actors -- such as Turkey. The supporters of the Assad regime are fewer in number, but equally important, including Russia, Iran, Iraq, and Hezbollah.

Neither the Assad regime, nor the Syrian opposition can conduct this war without the support of their regional and international power brokers. A heavily depleted Syrian army has been reliant on the continued support of Hezbollah fighters, Iranian weapons shipments, and Russian vetoes in the U.N. Security Council to sustain the regime's hold on the western area of Syria, and it has no chance of reclaiming lost territory in the northern and eastern areas of the country without further assistance by supporters of the regime. Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition, in its many forms, is reliant on arms and money from wealthy Gulf countries, political support from the West, and a base of operations in Turkey to hold its captured territory and attempt to seize regime strongholds in Damascus and Aleppo. The belligerents in the Syrian civil war are dependent on their respective power brokers to sustain the fight, a dynamic that ultimately gives countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran the final say in how long this war continues and under what circumstances it ends.

Despite the fierce battle being waged in Syria between regional geopolitical rivals, there appears to be growing acceptance among the key power brokers on the need for a negotiated settlement. The UAE, Turkey, and to a lesser extent Qatar have had a change of heart in the past few months and appear to understand that Syria will be solved politically, not militarily. Emirati-Iranian relations have warmed in recent months with several official visits including a recent visit by UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan and an upcoming visit by UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed. Turkish President Abdullah Gul has called for a "recalibration" of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's military-driven approach to Syria, adding to a growing chorus of Turkish citizens frustrated with current policy. Even Qatar, the most aggressive Gulf backer of the opposition, has shown signs of taking a less prominent role in the conflict under new Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.

Saudi Arabia has a growing sense of urgency in the need to resolve the Syrian problem in the face of a rising terrorist threat incubated in the ungoverned chaos of the war, which has prompted Riyadh to spend millions of dollars arming and training the Islamic Front as a counterweight to ISIL. On the other side of the aisle, Iran's willingness to work with the West has been enhanced by the positive progress on the P5+1 nuclear negotiations and its own concerns about al Qaeda-affiliated terrorism in Syria. Al Qaeda-affiliated groups in Syria have threatened to assassinate top Iranian officials and are tied to the November 2013 bombing of the Iranian Embassy in Beirut, which killed nearly two-dozen people.

The United States and Russia, the two key international powers that can secure or halt any action on Syria in the U.N. Security Council, are in agreement on the need for a political solution in Syria, even if a wide gap still remains between them on what that negotiated settlement looks like. Despite expending political capital on the Syrian conflict, both the United States and Russia have actively avoided getting dragged into the war militarily. Neither U.S. nor Russian interests are served by a war that further destabilizes Syria's neighbors, results in the breakdown of the Syrian state, or creates an ungoverned base of operations for al Qaeda-affiliated groups. Russia in particular has cause for concern on the rise of foreign jihadism in Syria, where as many as 609 Russian and Chechen fighters have gone to fight for the opposition, and could pose a serious threat to Russian security upon their return home.

The deal reached in September 2013 between Russia and the United States on the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile proves the conflict in Syria isn't a zero sum game between the two former Cold War rivals. Beyond the intrinsic value of destroying one of the world's largest chemical weapons stockpiles, the initial deal and its continued successful implementation is an important confidence building measure that has improved the working relationship between the United States and Russia heading into Geneva II.

The question is whether the convergence of U.S. and Russian interests that led to the chemical weapons deal can be expanded into a much wider and more complex negotiated settlement to the civil war. At Geneva II, Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov could conceivably agree on the framework for a deal that secures Assad's removal from power through a face-saving mechanism such as new elections that he "voluntarily" decides not to participate in, preserves Syria's current contiguous borders, maintains the country's core state institutions, incorporates more palatable members of the current regime and the opposition into a transitional government, and establishes greater local autonomy, particularly for Syria's Kurdish and Alawite-majority areas.

Such a framework would still face challenges and leaves many questions unanswered, but a united U.S.-Russian voice on how to implement the June 2012 Geneva communiqué would be a critical hurdle to surmount and put significant pressure on regional powers supporting both sides of the conflict to get behind the deal. Whether Russia can deliver Iran and the United States can deliver the Gulf Arab powers remains to be seen. Any negotiated settlement to the Syrian conflict would need to overcome the geopolitical proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, neither of whom will let Syria become a client state of the other. But potentially the threat posed by ISIL's recent growth in both Syria and Iraq will provide Saudi Arabia and Iran common cause to end the war in Syria in exchange for maintaining a degree of influence in Damascus.

Geneva II is the beginning of a long process, of which U.S. and Russian officials appear to be keenly aware. They understand that neither the Assad regime nor the Syrian opposition, in any form, has the resources to achieve a maximalist victory in Syria's civil war. The only end is a political resolution, a deal which will likely leave all sides disappointed in the lack of change from the pre-war status quo, but one that nonetheless is a significantly better alternative to an indefinite and increasingly brutal civil war.

The international community cannot end the war by pumping in more guns, money, and fighters to one side of the conflict or another, but it can end the war by getting key power brokers to simultaneously shut off the supply pipeline. Geneva II is just the next step in that long, arduous process of building peace on the outside of Syria's borders and hoping this peace can eventually make its way inside to the Syrian people.

Ken Sofer is a research associate with the National Security and International Policy team at the Center for American Progress. Follow him on Twitter: @KenSofer.

Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images

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