Syria’s civil war will eventually end not with surrender but with a negotiated political solution. No single actor or group of actors has the firepower to overwhelm its opponents’ centers of gravity, and all but the most extreme and desperate are tired of conflict. If Syrians want the bloodshed to end, they will have to accept a negotiated solution that preserves their fundamental interests and stops the fighting. Since the various players could make that judgment sooner rather than later, the United States should determine what first steps could lead to a peaceful resolution.
A promising strategy would begin with the countries that support the opposition. Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United States, among others, would first need to guide negotiations among the various resistance factions by establishing structures and procedures for internal deliberation. They would also need to assist with public diplomacy and the technical aspects of a transition, such as the disarmament of militias, and collaborate with outside actors, among them the UN, the EU, and even religious leaders, such as Pope Francis, who are determined to protect their communities.
But to a great extent, Iran and Russia hold the keys to a Syrian transition, as the government of Bashar al-Assad is almost completely dependent on their support. Both could contribute constructively to a new peace deal, despite the false starts of the so-called Geneva peace process last year. That effort failed in large part because the Assad government and its protectors were never serious about a real transition. For one to succeed, Tehran and Moscow would have to persuade Assad to abandon any delusion of remaining in power and submit to a process in which he might have a say, but no role, in Syria’s future. So far, Russia’s recent efforts to resurrect the Geneva process in Moscow, which now have the backing of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, have seemingly failed to convince the Syrian opposition to take part.