Whatever the Assad regime and its opponents may think, no side is heading toward military victory in Syria. On its current trajectory the war will worsen, with the already devastating death toll accompanied by increasing trans-border radicalization and further destruction of the country’s social and urban fabric.
Such continued misery for Syrians will entail rising costs for the conflict’s principal external stakeholders — Iran and Russia in the regime’s camp, the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar on the side of the opposition. It is high time for state backers on each side to recognize that their adversaries are not headed toward capitulation, and to begin the difficult work of outlining an ultimate geopolitical resolution to end the war.
Recent rebel gains in the north and south do not herald triumph in the broader war. The regime and its allies maintain firm control of strategically essential territory from Damascus to the coast, a stretch of western Syria in which they have eliminated, subdued or contained most rebel military capacity. It would take the regime crumbling from the inside for recent rebel momentum to carry over into these areas. That remains unlikely, and even if it occurred, regime remnants and allied militias would probably continue the fight.
At the same time, regime forces are clearly overstretched, and their pool of potential Syrian recruits is too shallow to compensate for the high casualty rates they suffer. Foreign fighters supplied or facilitated by Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah shoulder an increasing share of the resulting burden, but appear neither willing nor able to provide force sufficient to prevent continued losses on the fringes of regime-held territory.
The conflict’s Syrian protagonists are too fractious and invested in the status quo to shift course of their own accord toward a political resolution. Their respective sponsors are better positioned to change tack, and share a strategic interest in ending a war that fuels not only the jihadis of Islamic State, but also broader radicalization on both sides of the region’s worsening political and sectarian divides. These state backers should set aside their wishful thinking and identify which of their core demands they could realistically achieve.
A virtuous dynamic could then, at long last, be hoped-for, leading to eventual negotiation of a sustainable political resolution that they would guarantee. This will require strategic clarity and reciprocal concessions.
The U.S., France and UK can best solve their Syria conundrum by outlining a serious strategy, in cooperation with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to strengthen the mainstream opposition and nudge it toward a political vision.
Through combining leverage and dramatically improving coordination, the opposition’s Western and regional backers should gradually pressure Syrian rebels to choose between significant external support and a role in their country’s pluralistic political future on one hand, and continued cooperation with any transnational jihadi groups on the other. They should offer incentives for pragmatic political engagement and respect for local civil society, while punishing indiscriminate tactics, criminal behavior and sectarian rhetoric.
Western governments should also recognize that the mainstream opposition’s struggles against jihadis and the regime are inextricably linked. In order to gain strength at the expense of the former, mainstream rebels must prove themselves lead players in the war against the latter. External support should enable them to do so.
Showing such resolve would also indicate to Iran and Russia that returns on their investments in the regime’s military strategy will further diminish. To mitigate risks of inciting counter-escalation or fueling opposition hopes of an outright military victory, Washington should clearly signal willingness to negotiate a sustainable resolution ending Bashar Assad’s rule but including: preservation and reform of state institutions; hard security guarantees for all communities; decentralized security arrangements that would empower locals to play a lead role in their own protection; and delineation of responsibilities through constitutional provisions defining a newly pluralistic Syrian state. Given the extent of Iran’s influence on the ground, it would be included in such negotiations.
For its part, Tehran will have to accept something less than what it has had — unrivalled influence over a Syrian state within its “resistance axis” — and negotiate to secure what its foreign policy agenda requires: a link to Hezbollah in Lebanon and a Syria not allied exclusively with Iran’s regional competitors.
Similarly, the opposition’s principal regional backers — Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar — can attain their main shared objective in Syria by offering concessions on lower priorities that they lack the capacity to achieve. They are more likely to win a transition that includes the departure of Assad by agreeing to back decentralized security arrangements and accepting that Syria will be non-aligned, independent of any Saudi, Turkish or broader Sunni axis.
Turkey’s powerful leverage on the opposition is central to shifting the intra-rebel balance and, ultimately, guaranteeing a political resolution. Its core interests must also be taken into account: a Syrian state able and willing to help contain armed groups currently operating in Turkey and to protect the border; the return of the nearly two million Syrian refugees it hosts; and northern Kurdish-majority areas that are anchored in a pluralistic Syria.
For Russia, co-sponsoring a genuine resolution in Syria would enhance its international standing; better address the jihadi threat; increase its influence over the terms of an eventual deal; end the sense that it is playing second fiddle to a dead-end Iranian strategy; and preserve those parts of the Syrian state in which Moscow is most invested, notably the armed forces.
European governments could dampen the dual threat of home-grown jihadism and desperate immigration by more effectively applying the one foreign policy lever that does not stir divisions: humanitarian aid. This requires, first and foremost, more money and better coordination for programs serving the 12.2 million people in need of assistance inside Syria and the nearly four million Syrians who have sought refuge in neighboring countries.
Priorities include pressuring Damascus to allow humanitarian access to besieged areas and remove administrative hurdles obstructing aid delivery elsewhere; creative approaches to a massive education crisis, with more than two million Syrian children out of school; increased funding to address shortfalls in UN refugee-support programs; and increased development aid to neighboring countries bearing the burdens of the refugee crisis.
Once an endgame’s outlines are clear and all parties focus on their real bottom lines, the hard work of building the security and constitutional framework of the new Syria can begin.
Noah Bonsey is Senior Syria Analyst for International Crisis Group, the independent conflict-resolution organization.