The US and Russia are reportedly promoting a concert-of-powers approach to new negotiations over Syria.
Although any movement toward a political solution will be limited by the unwillingness of ISIS and other Islamists to engage in such a process, recent intelligence contact between the Syrians and the Saudis, visits to Oman by senior Syrian officials and exchanges between Riyadh and Moscow suggest that a more pragmatic stance may be developing among the regional powers.
We may be seeing the start of a process, backed by Moscow and Washington, that will see a recalibration of the objectives of the key regional players in response to the realisation that the goals they hoped to achieve when the conflict began — notably, the removal of the Assad regime and the winding back of Iranian influence over the region's strategic outlook — now appear unattainable.
Crucial to this shift is the fact that the Iranian nuclear deal — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — has reshaped the regional strategic environment.
The deal demonstrates a willingness on the part of Washington and Moscow to work together (albeit in an adversarial overall relationship) when they judge their respective interests in the region may benefit. The deal also frees Iran to offer more military and financial support and reassurance to the Assad regime in support of Iranian interests, which include the preservation of Hezbollah's capacity to contain Sunni rebel forces in Syria and exert military pressure on Israel.
Further, the nuclear deal sends the message to the Saudis that, while Washington will remain active in Saudi Arabia's defence, the US will not be responsive to Riyadh's agenda when diplomacy can achieve better outcomes for US interests. This last factor is complemented by the death of King Abdullah, whose bitterness towards Assad was personal as well as a reflection of wider strategic concerns. Nor should one underestimate the importance for Saudi policy thinking of the emergence, under the patronage of King Salman, of officials with a sophisticated appreciation of the US political and policy environment under the Obama Administration.
Against that background, it now may not be beyond the Saudis and Iranians to endorse a negotiated deal catering to their respective interests in Syria as the best of a bad set of options.
That is particularly so if they conclude the Assad regime is now capable of surviving in some reduced form, and if the Russians and Iranians undertake to ease Bashar al-Assad out (to be replaced, of course, by someone from the regime) in order to secure their own interests.
For the Saudis, there is little to be gained by promoting an open-ended conflict in which the regime survived and the main potential non-state beneficiaries from the struggle — Islamic State and the forces associated with al Qaeda — remained fundamentally antagonistic to Saudi interests. For the Iranians, continuation of an Alawite regime, even in a diminished form and with or without Assad at the helm, together with Saudi acceptance of Iran's capacity to remain an influential player in what promises to be a crowded field of contenders for power in the rest of Syria, will remain paramount concerns.
This being the Middle East, we should not get carried away by such possibilities for policy pragmatism. However, as recently suggested by Graham Fuller, what might be on the cards following the Iranian nuclear deal (if it gets through the US Congress) is considerably more promising than anything seen for some time.
The only point on which I would disagree with Fuller is the notion that the Alawites would envisage, let alone implement, a power-sharing deal even remotely acceptable to the Sunnis. Unless the Assad regime were to collapse before a deal was done, the outcome in practice would probably be based around some sort of territorial disaggregation of Syria according to lines of military control. Assad and the Alawites would probably accept such an outcome.
Within such a territorial disaggregation, the struggles for turf, profit and political values would be complex and violent. Because Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS elements and their associates have greater muscle, the odds would favour the entrenchment of the extremist end of the Islamist spectrum in most areas outside the Alawite domain (perhaps with the exception of the areas dominated by Kurds and Druze). The non-ISIS and non-Jabhat al Nusra rebel opposition, especially the Western-backed Free Syrian Army and other forces currently supported from Jordan by the US and others, could well be placed at risk in the event of a deal being struck. The struggle for Damascus, in which Islamist groups are at the forefront of the fighting, would likely continue.
While there are therefore some grounds for optimism about diplomatic and political efforts to find a regional solution to the Syria conflict, even if the broad parameters of a deal were to be reached, the conflict may well continue with a somewhat different and more localised focus, and without much prospect for a resolution of its humanitarian consequences.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user U.S. Department of State.