Everyone except Bashar al-Assad agrees that the only way out of the Syrian conflict lies in a negotiated political solution. Known for refusing to compromise on his objective of total victory, Assad will not bend unless other nations force him to do so. The failure of the Geneva II talks, and the success of the chemical weapons deal (agreed to in the face of U.S .air strikes) underscore how Assad responds to pressure.
Presently, the U.S.-led coalition possesses enough power to draw the Syrian regime to the negotiation table, but the coalition also finds itself in a complicated position. On the one hand, since Assad will attempt to test U.S. readiness, the United States remains unwilling to issue any threats it is not prepared to act upon. On the other hand, any major military intervention against Assad could very likely bring about a sudden regime collapse, which would greatly empower radical Islamists.
During the last few months, three major factors have developed simultaneously that present the international community with a unique opportunity out of this dilemma. If acted upon, they could signal a potential breakthrough in the long-standing Syrian civil war.
The first factor is the increasingly accepted belief that ISIS is a symptom of the Syrian conflict. That is, it was the ongoing fighting in Syria that allowed ISIS to position itself as a potential regional force. This likely worries Assad given that Washington is currently crafting a new strategy that is expected to devote more resources to the opposition versus the regime part of the conflict, which will deny Assad the time he needs to crush the rebels.
A second factor is Assad’s failure to ally himself with the United States in the war against ISIS, unlike his main opponents (moderate Syrian rebels). If the U.S.-led coalition sends a strong signal of dedication to protecting their Syrian allies on the ground, Assad will be paralyzed for the first time since the beginning of the conflict. Of course, he will test America’s commitment to the moderate fighters by conducting minor attacks, but even a measured response from the U.S. will stymie those attempts.
Assad will not want to escalate things with the US-led coalition because that would risk losing the support of his Alawite-dominated military. The Alawite community is currently fighting for its survival, and it will therefore desert Assad the minute them puts them on the path towards fighting a war with the U.S. in which they stand no chance at victory. Undoubtedly, in this scenario they would choose to go back home and protect their families from Islamists.
The third and final development is a “conflict freeze” proposal by the new UN mediator Staffan de Mistura. In the plan, Mistura calls for "freeze zones" to halt fighting and improve aid, and many see it as a potential first step towards a larger peace process. Notably, this proposal has already been supported by Russia, Assad’s most powerful ally.
From a military point of view, a non-escalation deadlock on the ground will translate into an unofficial ceasefire zone. From a political point of view, being unable to attack moderate rebels and fearing that he will lose his own fighters will make Assad choose a “second best” – face-saving option. Furthermore, it will motivate him to cooperate with the UN on the “freeze zones” initiative, especially since, in practice it will already exist.
Deadlock on the ground will empower the UN special envoy and this "conflict freeze" proposal could, in the long term, be a first step towards relaunching Geneva peace talks between the opposition and regime (this time in a stabilized and firmly controlled environment, where there is an equal balance of power between the two sides). At the very least, in the short term, the ceasefire zones will deny ISIS the unstable environment in which it has thus far thrived, and consequently bringing much more unity and focus into the war against the Islamic State.
Rami Nakhla is 2014 Yale World Fellow, and member of the Syrian National Council.
Vera Mironova is Research Fellow at Harvard Program on Negotiations and a PhD candidate at University of Maryland.