A negotiated resolution of the Syrian conflict establishing a transitional government with full executive powers might now be in the interest of all the main players involved in the conflict. The war in Syria is nothing close to the binary war it once was, fought between a secular opposition and a repressive regime. Islamist extremists have come to the forefront of the opposition, particularly the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (aka al Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant, aka Dawlat al-Iraq al-Islamiyya). Infighting between factions within the opposition has further complicated things.
When the conflict began two and a half years ago, it was commonly thought that Assad would be deposed and replaced by a new government led by the Syrian National Coalition. Hardly anyone now thinks this is possible. Should Assad fall, the most likely result is a chaotic power vacuum and continued civil war, with extremists like al Qaeda growing in strength and wreaking havoc on the Syrian people. Measured against this bleak prospect, a negotiated political transition is preferable, even if it involves hard-to-swallow compromises with the Assad regime and its supporters.
A transitional government would have to include members of the Assad regime alongside representatives of the opposition groups, excluding al Qaeda. A major stumbling block will be Assad himself. Regime officials have said that a transitional government is unacceptable unless it includes Assad, while the opposition forces have made it their bottom line that Assad has to go. At present, out of the entities party to the negtotiations, only the US and the Syrian opposition are pressuring Assad to step down. If Russia and Iran accepted that Assad stepping down was the only route to a negotiated resolution that served their interests, they would be far more likely to join in persuading him to step down. For the moment, the conflict’s continuation does not do much damage to Russia and Iran. To them, there is no urgency to resolve the conflict. For this to change, they need to see the benefits of resolving it.
In exchange for its cooperation in Syria, the US could offer to ease its sanctions on Iran. If Iran saw that a negotiated transition would preserve its interests, while the benefit of easing sanctions was also on the table, it might be more inclined to cooperate. This would have to be behind closed door; such dealings would be heavily frowned upon domestically in the US.
The most important thing is for Russia and Iran to see that their interests are served by a political settlement. Only then will they be likely to cooperate in convincing Assad to step down and allow a resolution to come about. Let’s examine how establishing a transitional government can satisfy each country’s interests.
For the US, a transitional government would create a united front in the battle to rid Syria of al Qaeda and begin the work of democratization. Under these circumstances, the US would be a generous donor in the rebuilding of the country, and a strong ally thereafter. Russia is mainly interested in preserving its waning influence in the region and putting a halt to US encroachment. A transitional government that included enough regime officials would ensure that Russia maintained its naval base in Tartus. Iran is less concerned with the political post-Assad than maintaining its ties to the military so that it can continue its support of Hezbollah in its guerrilla war against Israel. A transitional government that left the structure of the military leadership unchanged would satisfy likely Iran. This will be problematic for the US, but in order to get a settlement it will have to allow Russia and Iran to preserve their ties with Syria. Otherwise, al Qaeda will continue to flourish.
Evidently, an overlap of interests exists, but given the past history of suspicion and distrust between these countries, the necessary compromises will not easily be made. It will take much political courage from all parties, particularly the US. But, at the end of the day, it is national interest that will bring the parties together to give effect to this resolution. It is possible that the outcome of a political settlement can be engineered to serve all parties’ interests. What remains to be seen is whether they can agree on how best to deal with Assad. Ultimately, it is this that will determine whether a transitional government is possible or if Syria is condemned to interminable civil war.