Take a cursory look at the bleeding mass of blood and population displacement that is Syria today, and you could be forgiven for thinking that this is the country where diplomacy goes to die. The Syrian civil war, a brutal, fiercely indiscriminate conflict now in its eighth year, has outlasted three UN special envoys; countless calls for accountability from the UN Human Rights Council; and numerous comprehensive peace initiatives. Thanks in large measure to the Russian pilots in the sky and Iranian-sponsored pro-government militia forces on the ground, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad now finds himself in a strong military position. Through merciless bombing campaigns, starve-and-surrender sieges, and mass evacuations, the Assad regime has finally cleared the Damascus area of a rebel presence. And despite the valiant attempts of Staffan de Mistura — a career UN diplomat who refuses to quit, no matter how hopeless the task — the Geneva peace process he has been responsible for managing over the previous thirty-four months is on life support.
Given Assad’s unassailable military position, the ophthalmologist-turned-war criminal really doesn’t have any incentive to cooperate in his own negotiated resignation. At this point in the war, the only thing the regime is interested in discussing is how fast its opponents will surrender their guns and accept their defeat.
Yet remove the UN-facilitated process from the equation, and Syria is actually the subject of quite a bit of diplomatic activity. Russians are talking to Iranians about the spoils, trials, and tribulations of a post-war Syria under Assad’s grip. Israelis have engaged in substantive talks with Russians for months on what to do about the presence of Iranian militias and Iranian intelligence operatives near the Israeli-Syrian border. Jordanians are acting as go-betweens and intermediators among a number of players in the Syrian morass, even as they send their own messages to Tehran that the Hashemite Kingdom will not tolerate an Iranian military presence near its border. Even Israel and Iran, the definition of mortal enemies, were reportedly communicating with one another last weekend. According to the Jerusalem Post, Israeli and Iranian representatives were within earshot of one another in the same hotel, ending the day with a pragmatic arrangement: in return for Israel allowing the Syrian army to retake the sensitive area of southern Syria unencumbered, Iran would agree to stay on the sidelines during the battle.
The mini Israel-Iran summit is separate and apart from the channel of communication that exists between Israel and Russia, Assad’s most valuable patron and a country increasingly concerned that Iranian activity in Syria could jeopardize all of Moscow’s hard work. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s anxiousness is certainly justified; in response to a volley of Iranian rockets towards the Golan Heights in early May, Israel retaliated by conducting its biggest military operation in Syria in generations. We are not talking about the kinds of pinprick airstrikes on a Hezbollah weapons convoy that Damascus has grown comfortable with over the previous several years, but rather the destruction of a far more expansive target set throughout the country. The last thing Putin wants after going through the trouble of supporting the Syrian regime to the hilt is a situation where Israel knocks Syrian military airstrips and bases off-line, giving opposition factions renewed hope that the war could turn around for them.
So, is there diplomacy going on in Syria today? The answer is yes: Russia, Iran, Turkey, the United States, Israel, Jordan, Iraq, and the Europeans are all involved in one way or another. The objective is clear enough: ensure that miscommunication in the air and on the ground is limited to the maximum extent possible; prevent a wider conflagration that could make the Syrian war look like a blip on the radar screen; and establish some basic rules-of-the-road for the purpose of minimizing and restraining everyone’s ambitions.
Unfortunately for the Syrian people, none of the ongoing diplomacy has anything to do with their future. While there remains an extensive segment of the Syrian population that wishes for a change in leadership or a change in government, the cold, hard reality is that Bashar al-Assad will remain the president of the Syrian Arab Republic for the foreseeable future. Previous expectations of Assad traveling the same road as Tunisia’s al-Abidine Ben Ali or Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak — a quick, painless, and relatively bloodless deposition from power — turned out to be nothing but delusional. Unlike Mubarak, whose rule lasted only as long as he could maintain the support and tolerance of Egypt’s military brass, Assad inherited a security state constructed by his late father whose power, prestige, and privilege depended upon Bashar remaining in the presidential palace. The Egyptian armed forces were not willing to level the country and kill tens of thousands of civilians for the benefit of a corrupt Mubarak who lost his marbles. Not so with the Syrian security establishment, a conglomeration of units which was willing to annihilate as many cities and use all of the weapons at its disposal — including sarin nerve agent — as was required to stifle dissent and retain authority.
The Syrian dictator continues to prove his staying power to his many rivals inside the region and out. The United States long ago disassociated itself from the trajectory of the war, calculating (wisely in my view) that its national security interests did not include getting itself enmeshed into the middle of another regime change campaign in the Arab world. In the eighth year of the conflict, the international community has come around to acknowledging the reality of an Assad victory. The question now is not whether the Assad regime will survive, but whether the inter-state, geopolitical contest for power will escalate in a Levant that is broken, broke, and in a state of disrepute.
Daniel R. DePetris is a foreign policy analyst based in New York City and a columnist for the American Conservative and the Spectator.