Is Assad fishing for a deal?



Given two years of brutal violence and the killing of over 40,000 people, it is hard to take seriously any comments from the Syrian regime suggesting a political solution to the devastating crisis. Remarks by Syrian Vice President, Farouq al-Sharaa, to the Lebanese daily, al-Akhbar, criticising the regime’s approach, stating that it cannot win the battle militarily, and calling for a “historic settlement” including the establishment of an empowered national unity government - that is to say a negotiated agreement - have been widely rejected as a new attempt by the regime to buy time.

The prospect of any near-term form of political dialogue and solution to the conflict seems far-fetched at best. The levels of polarisation now run too bloody and too deep. On Sunday regime jets bombed the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk in Damascus, and every day new reports of state brutality surface. The rebels are quite clear that they have no trust in the regime, and short of a dramatic act of regime capitulation, such as Bashar al-Assad pre-emptively stepping aside, there is little to no prospect that rebel fighters will lay down their arms to pursue a negotiated settlement, especially given their recent military gains.

However, given the changing dynamics of the conflict it may be foolish to whole-heartedly dismiss al-Sharaa's comments. Recent reports point to a regime that is ever more cornered. Though its demise may not be immediately imminent and it retains control over key urban centres including central Damascus and Homs, it is clear that the rebels are making increasing headway. The recent, somewhat futile, use of scud missiles points to increased regime desperation. The prospect of an ultimate regime victory is now close to impossible to imagine, a fact that even Russia appears to have accepted. Assad’s closest ally, Iran, has pitched a new 6-point transition plan, suggesting that Tehran is also losing hope and looking for a way out.

As such it could well be that Assad and those around him have finally come to the realisation that a deal needs to be struck. Al-Sharaa’s comments, the first high-level acknowledgment that the regime cannot win the battle militarily, may well represent an attempt to feel the waters for negotiations. Although al-Sharaa made clear that ultimate authority lies with Assad who remains focused on a military solution, the implicit, officially-sanctioned, criticism of that approach could mark an important shift; the interview was prominently highlighted on Syria’s state news agency, SANA. Moreover, it may not be a coincidence that the comments come from the one senior official that external actors, and even some members of the opposition, have previously suggested could preside over a transition.

However, whether genuine or not, al-Sharaa’s comments are likely to go nowhere given the regime’s ongoing brutal suppression of the opposition. Syria will pay a very heavy price for this. While victory may be within the rebels’ ultimate grasp, the country could well be irreparably torn apart in the process – more so than it already is, with or without western military intervention. Though the regime is clearly weakening, Assad's Alawite-dominated security apparatus remains a formidable force capable of mounting a prolonged last stand (and one that could well outlive the demise of Assad himself). Recent days have also highlighted worrying signs of sectarian violence instigated by rebel forces, with alleged attacks on Alawite villagers and the burning of a Shia mosque. With jihadist forces (in the form of Jabhat al-Nusra) gaining wider traction, the outlook for Syria’s multi-communal landscape is looking ever more dire. A fight to the end will send Syria even deeper into the abyss of sectarian disintegration.  

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