As Syrian civilians suffer ceaseless indiscriminate attacks, millions of their compatriots flee their homes, and the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS) extends its killing beyond Syria and Iraq, the only good news coming out of the Middle East's most violent conflict is that the contours of a deal to end it have become clearer. After talks in Vienna in late October, the main foreign actors in Syria’s civil war issued a declaration outlining the principles that could guide some of the conflict’s combatants toward a political settlement. The Vienna declaration calls for secular governance, the eventual defeat of ISIS “and other terrorist groups,” the maintenance of the country’s prewar borders, and the protection of minority groups and state institutions, among other provisions. Yet it fails to address a key issue: how the warring parties might build the trust needed to achieve such goals. As negotiators prepare for a new round of talks in New York in late December or early January, it is essential that they address trust building head-on, above all by demanding an end to the attacks on civilians that are driving Syrians apart and by sidelining the people who have been responsible for them.
By now, it should be clear that none of the Syrian combatants are capable of prevailing militarily. Even with Russia’s entry into the war and the backing of Hezbollah and Iranian troops, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have not been able to make significant advances against the rebels. Nor have opposition fighters managed to make much of a dent in the government-held corridor between Damascus and the Mediterranean coast. The stalemate should convince all involved of the need for a political compromise.
If it is to have a chance of succeeding, such a compromise must be based not on the wish
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