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.

Iran and Russia have legitimate interests in Middle East stability, and a peace process would provide them with the opportunity to earn some goodwill among the region’s citizens. Both countries have poor local reputations that could use a makeover. But there are limits to what Tehran can achieve, particularly since the Arab states will resist what they perceive as too much Iranian meddling. At the same time, both the Iranian and Russian economies are in serious trouble, and participating constructively in a peace process for Syria could help in two ways: first, in the case of Iran, by ultimately easing the direct economic drain of supporting Assad; and second, and perhaps most important, by establishing a new level of trust with Western countries that is necessary, but not sufficient, to ease sanctions in negotiations over Tehran’s nuclear program or Moscow’s involvement in Ukraine. 

Many observers argue that a negotiated settlement would never be workable. The Syrian civil war, they say, is simply too complex and too brutal, local interests are too invested in warfare and reprisal, and outside powers are too unwilling to cooperate. Yet the same skepticism surrounded the 14-year-long Lebanese civil war in the 1980s. And that horrific and seemingly intractable conflict finally ended in 1989 with what came to be known as the Taif Agreement, named after the Saudi Arabian city that hosted the Arab League–led negotiations.

Are the negotiations that produced the Taif Agreement an appropriate model for resolving the Syrian crisis? Critics say that the roots of the Lebanese conflict are too different from the dynamics that drove Syria into civil war and point out that the pact went only so far, as Lebanon remains fragile today. Yet the process, although flawed, managed to end years of bloody ethnic and sectarian warfare. Despite recurring episodes of heinous political violence, Lebanon has not experienced the all-out internecine warfare it saw from 1975 to 1989.

The success of the 1989 negotiations was in large part a product of tacit agreements and behind-the-scenes diplomacy among Lebanon’s neighbors, often facilitated by the U.S. embassies in their capitals. Effective negotiations provided clear channels of communication and stanched the misperceptions and misunderstandings that would otherwise have prevented consensus among Lebanon’s neighbors. Working concurrently, Cairo, Riyadh, Jerusalem, Washington, and others eventually cajoled the various Lebanese political factions into consensus.

A Syrian peace process would likely be more manageable, since the country does not suffer from the sort of complex ethno-sectarian disputes that were at play in Lebanon. The dynamics in Syria are in some ways simpler: a dictatorial regime is brutalizing its own citizens; a Sunni Arab majority is yearning for its rightful place in a participatory democracy; a mosaic of Syrian citizens, many of them non-Sunni or non-Arab, want to live and work in peace; and an Alawite minority is fearful of falling victim to indiscriminate reprisals. As with Lebanon, all victims of the current conflict are demanding their own version of justice. And the jihadist pretensions of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) are actually alien to Syria’s history and culture.

In fact, ISIS and groups like it have no future in the new Syria. Eventually, an international coalition will degrade them militarily, and a new power arrangement in Damascus will fill the vacuum that allowed the militants to take control in certain provinces. A corollary to the diplomacy-based approach of a Taif-like process is that military action in Syria, by forcing ISIS out of the picture, could help pave the way to a negotiated peace.

As in 1989, the United States can use its diplomatic leverage to launch a peace process from the outside. But a successful resolution would have to prepare the country for long-term stability. To avoid another descent into violence, Syria’s institutions must become participatory, transparent, and accountable—an undertaking of immense proportions even under the best of circumstances.

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  • DAVID C. LITT is Executive Director of the Center for Stabilization & Reconstruction at the Institute for Defense & Business. He was previously a career U.S. diplomat and U.S. Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates.
  • More By David C. Litt