On Shifting Ground: A New Diplomacy for Syria?


From the airfields of Aleppo to the suburbs of Damascus, 2013 has been a year of extraordinary violence in Syria.

As this post is being written, the restive Damascus neighborhoods of Daraya and Jobar are under continuous aerial assault by forces loyal to the struggling government of Bashar al-Assad. A days-long battle for control of Aleppo’s international airport is dragging on, and rebel units continue their efforts to take and hold smaller towns in the north and east.

The death toll, human rights officials estimate, has now reached 70,000 and is expected to rise further as the government attempts to roll back the rebels’ progress. After several weeks of stalemate, the situation now seems fluid and unstable; the balance of forces may be shifting, regionally and internationally as well as domestically.

On February 13, the opposition Syrian National Council announced that the Qatari government — one of its earliest and most vocal supporters — would be handing over control of the Syrian Embassy in Doha to ambassadorial staff appointed by the Council. For members of the opposition, the gesture was a welcome sign of international faith in a governing body which has only just been recognized by most of the Western powers and which remains weakened by deep internal divisions – including, most recently and most seriously, the tactical rift that emerged following an offer from the SNC’s president to engage in political negotiations with the Assad regime.

That proposal, which was tentatively welcomed on Monday by Assad’s Minister for National Reconciliation, may not ultimately succeed in ending the violence – yet the suggestion has had the unexpected effect of reintroducing the vocabulary of political conflict resolution into an international conversation from which it has recently been notably absent.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in some of his first official remarks on the Syrian conflict, spoke of the issues at play on Wednesday in terms strikingly different from those favored by his predecessor, Hillary Clinton. “I believe there are additional things that can be done to change [Assad]’s current perception,” he told reporters after a meeting with Jordan’s foreign minister. “My goal is to see us change his calculation.” For the first time in several months, a senior official representing Lakhdar Brahimi, the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria, is now on the ground in Damascus, talking with rebel fighters and minority leaders.

But in spite of these positive political developments, the broader regional context remains unpredictable and perilous. On Wednesday, the Iranian Embassy in Lebanon announced the death of an Iranian development official in an attack near the Syrian border town of Zabadani. Iran has been a committed and generous supporter of the Assad regime ever since the rebellion began; the Iranian government feels its national interest to be bound up in the conflict and it is likely to continue interfering if it believes a negotiated resolution would threaten that interest. Turkey, Israel, Iraq and the Gulf states all have much at stake in Syria, and their clashing preferences may further complicate international peacemaking efforts.

The language in which those efforts are framed may be changing – but the way forward remains unclear.

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