For analysts familiar with the politics of Syria, the country’s descent into chaos amounts to an all-too-predictable pattern. It also parallels what Rami Makhlouf, a major regime figure and first cousin of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, bluntly announced in an interview with the New York Times in May 2011—that, among other things, Syrians faced the Assad regime or domestic and regional chaos.

Diplomatic services, media outlets, and the think tank community are rife with analyses of the situation, but no clear way forward is emerging. The most attractive options offer a choice between the bad and the worse. Even the recent understanding between Moscow and Washington to hold an international conference on Syria—already dubbed “Geneva II” in reference to a similar conference held last summer in Switzerland—raises as much skepticism as hope.

In large part, the way forward will depend on how much “realpolitik” the main players are ready to accept in order to put an end to the bloodshed, avoid regional complications, and incorporate the range of national interests at stake in and around Syria. Unpleasant choices lie ahead.

Chaos Builds

It is an understatement to say that lately, the situation in Syria has deteriorated sharply. Consecutive bombings have taken place in Damascus, including one presumed attack on the prime minister. Small doses of chemical weapons were apparently used (though it’s unclear who exactly used them), and the Syrian air force continues to bomb civilian areas, including one close to the Turkish border. There have been large-scale massacres near Damascus and Latakia, two air raids by the Israeli air force on Syria, and a missile threat on a Russian airliner carrying tourists, which prompted Russia to discontinue its civilian flights over Syria. Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, also gave speeches in support of the regime and threatened that Assad might provide the group with new weaponry following Israel’s strikes. And a deadly bombing took place on May 11 in Reyhanli, the main entry point of Syrian refugees in Turkey’s Hatay Province, prompting accusations that the Syrian regime is exporting the conflict.

Simultaneously, Bashar al-Assad made two rare appearances in staged ceremonies on May 1 and 4 to show that the regime was operating normally, amid indications that no political movement is on the horizon.

In light of these developments, an intense debate is going on among Western allies and in Washington about whether a “redline” has been crossed with the use of chemical weapons and whether to arm the opposition. The U.S., British, and French administrations have raised expectations that answers and actions may come soon, but they have also been extremely careful not to draw hasty conclusions. Some analysts have even started asking whether U.S. President Obama’s redline should be interpreted as a “green light.”

Many other questions are being asked in parallel, including whether military action is appropriate and where it would lead. Reports from Jordan, meanwhile, stress the increasing difficulties linked to the presence of a large number of refugees in the north of the country.

Based on observation and past experience, two sets of factors—some internal, others external—emerge to help explain the current situation and delineate a future path.

Internal Factors at Play

The Assad regime has applied a deliberate approach to increasing violence. It is using long-range artillery, air force jets, and helicopters against civilian areas, including against people waiting in line at bakeries and hospitals. The regime has used ballistic missiles, engineered large-scale massacres in Jdaideh and Banias to maximize the psychological impact on ordinary citizens, and probably used chemical weapons in small doses.

In using such massive violence against its own people, the regime is both well equipped and totally uninhibited. There is no limit to the amount of destruction as the regime probably sees generalized chaos across the country as providing its best chance at survival. The latest massacres in the Alawite-dominated coastal region could even be interpreted as an effort to “cleanse” the area of Sunni Muslims with the aim of making it a separate Alawite entity where the regime could survive.

The Assad regime’s approach has also been shaped by its reading of Western actions or inaction. For instance, the failure of the UN Security Council to adopt resolutions on Syria was seen as implicitly authorizing the regime’s violent repression of the rebellion. President Obama’s first redline statement about chemical weapons in August 2012 was taken as a license to use conventional weapons. Similarly, the absence of a massive international reaction about the massacres in Jdaideh and Banias was further evidence in the regime’s eyes of its international impunity.

The division and overall impotence of the Syrian opposition, the absence of a recognized leader, and the disconnect between the opposition’s leadership structures and the rebels’ military forces are tragically important factors in the current situation. In particular, the incapacity of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the main umbrella opposition framework, to connect with reasonable elements of the regime (because of internal opposition dynamics and firmly entrenched positions, as well as the regime’s surveillance of these elements) is preventing any forward-looking dialogue in a form that could possibly impact the position of Moscow, which has been the most important external factor influencing the situation in Syria.

Key External Factors

The two pillars of the Russian position—consistently vetoing resolutions calling for a harder line at the UN Security Council and sending daily supplies of ammunition and spare weapons to Syria—are keeping the regime in place. There is an entire debate to be had on the rationale behind the Russian position, given the obviously hefty price that comes with it: a disastrous image in the Arab world, the increased likelihood of a radical-Islamist-dominated post-Assad regime, and the impact it has on Russia’s own Islamists. Moscow’s stance also prolongs the conflict and makes it impossible to entertain a meaningful dialogue with Assad given the unimaginable violence the Syrian regime is using.

The Russian position in turn enables other forms of support—Chinese vetoes in the Security Council, military support from Iran and Hezbollah—that may become less effective or even less politically meaningful if Russia’s stance were to change. Indeed, there are signs of “Assad fatigue” in Moscow and Tehran.

Western powers’ inability to take decisive action has also contributed to the current downward spiral. After proclaiming early on that Assad had lost legitimacy and therefore had to go, Western countries failed to declare that they were ready to use force to impose such a strong stance. From the outset, this has been a crack in their Syria policy. The “yes-no-but-perhaps” discourse in Washington, London, and Paris surrounding the use of chemical weapons adds to the ambiguity. Only historians will be able to determine whether the “Iraq-Afghanistan hangover” in Washington has induced a new, more distant policy toward the Middle East. Similarly, the impact of the elimination—by Europe’s own will—of whatever foreign policy influence the EU had before the reforms of the Lisbon Treaty is up for interpretation, but it can be argued that the taste for bilateralism displayed by the EU’s “big three” has sidelined them and the entire EU in the Syrian crisis.

Mindful of its specific interests, Israel has seemingly decided to go it alone and take out the regime’s most dangerous military assets. Israel demonstrated that targeting significant regime assets and neutralizing the hitherto-invincible Syrian air defenses is possible, at least for the moment. The May 5 Israeli raid on targets near Damascus has had more psychological impact on the Assad clan and its supporters than anything else so far. It also strongly warned Assad—as the Patriot-missile deployment in Turkey did earlier—not to make any new attempt to internationalize the conflict. However, the Reyhanli bombing in Turkey indicates that Damascus is not heeding the advice; it just hits somewhere else.

Making the Most of a Narrow Opening

Moving past the current chaotic impasse is an immensely complex task.

The starting point is, quite simply, that no positive movement is to be expected from the regime, even if a UN investigation into the use of chemical weapons is accepted. Furthermore, the regime will not reform, for the simple reason that reform means the end of the ruling Assad-Makhlouf clan.

Indeed, the Syrian regime is likely to fight with utmost violence to survive in Damascus and the coastal region, even at the price of having warlords share the rest of the country amid permanent unrest. As a plan B, it will attempt to carve out its Alawite statelet on the northwestern coast of Syria (the French mandate of 1920 over Syria and Lebanon included an “Alawite state” with Latakia as its capital).

But a partition of Syria would be complex, and protracted guerilla warfare between rival statelets would entail immense risks within and outside the country. Other avenues must be explored.

The Western debate about arming the Syrian opposition is likely to go on unabated because public opinion and members of parliament in these countries are outraged by more than two years of massacres and destruction. Yet, arming the rebellion in an attempt to “rebalance” the conflict would be a considerable headache given the disorganization of opposition forces and, more importantly, because it would amount to fighting a proxy war with Russia and Iran on Syrian soil, with multiple regional implications.

This indirect military option (and its sub-options) is only a second-best approach, and might even be a dead-end street. The real solution lies with Moscow. Based on its vision of Russia’s national interest, Moscow’s political and military support is what allows Assad to massacre his people and to engineer predictable regional chaos. In the same way, Iran is a secondary player.

But increasingly, the Russian and Iranian calculus is being proven wrong. The West must impress upon Moscow, as well as Tehran, the reasons a change of approach is necessary:

  • Both Russia and Iran have national interests at stake in Syria and want to ensure the existence of a Syrian state structure with which they can maintain friendly relations. In particular, Moscow’s interests in Syria are not served by mounting and lasting chaos.
     
  • Assad’s ruthless behavior has disqualified him (and his clan) as a reliable leader of a stabilized Syria. His victory is no longer an option. He will never regain legitimacy over the entire country. Being his ally in the future means being the ally of an Alawite warlord constantly pitted against other Syrian factions.
     
  • Assad has become a liability for Russia. Keeping him in power dents Russia’s international standing, especially in the Arab world.
     
  • Preserving the Syrian state is now distinct from and incompatible with keeping Assad in power.
     

What lies ahead is therefore an unpleasant moment of choice for Washington and Moscow, as well as for China, France, and the United Kingdom (the other permanent members of the UN Security Council or P5). They must determine the price of resolution.

Standing out among the many looming decisions is whether Moscow will see fit to notify Bashar al-Assad that Russia will not support an indefinite descent into chaos and therefore force him to designate acceptable representatives to participate in international talks. This would imply that weapons deliveries would be stopped or suspended, which is only a remote probability. Such a move, if made, should be matched by a Western recognition that Russia’s interests will be served in the final outcome.

Can the P5 Succeed?

There is limited but real common ground among the P5: they all advocate a ceasefire, they are opposed to the use of chemical weapons, they want to preserve Syria’s unity, and they have an interest in regional stability. To various degrees, both Iran and Israel share some of these positions.

Some headway has already been made. On May 7, Russia and the United States came to an understanding about an international peace conference to be held, possibly in June. Like its predecessor, it will probably take place in Geneva rather than Istanbul or Doha.

But there are still numerous details to work out to make such a conference happen, not least naming the Syrian participants from the regime and the opposition as well as the list of interested regional countries. Iran and Israel are especially key to a meaningful conference. In addition, Russia and the United States need to enlist the support of not only China, France, and the United Kingdom but also the entire European Union, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the Arab League. A lot of diplomatic legwork lies ahead.

At this stage, one must assume that none of the permanent members of the Security Council wants to be perceived as contemplating never-ending warfare on Syrian territory or as considering the Syrian humanitarian tragedy a sideshow of negligible magnitude.

But this fragile beginning needs to be carefully nurtured and transformed into a full agreement. The road is fraught with dangers. Indeed, the conceivable outcomes—whether a compromise between the regime and the opposition or a peace accord reminiscent of the Dayton agreement that ended the Bosnian war—will require delicate shepherding. But there are no sensible alternatives to a discussion among the P5.

China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States should therefore urgently accelerate the talks among themselves with no preconceived outcomes. They should aim to hold a meaningful conference in Geneva this June. Lasting regional chaos and international shame is the alternative.