Representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition Syrian National Coalition held two rounds of talks in Geneva, Switzerland in early 2014, initiating a long-delayed peace process sponsored by the U.S. and Russia, and backed by both the UN and the Arab League. Unfortunately, the talks, mediated by joint UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, brought no tangible progress. They even failed to produce agreement on confidence-building measures, such as limited cease-fires to facilitate humanitarian services.

The poor start is not surprising. The two camps only met under intense pressure from their respective foreign backers, who themselves are not in total agreement on key issues, including the role, if any, to be played by President Bashar al-Assad in a future transitional regime.

Moreover, most opposition groups inside Syria do not recognize the authority of the Syrian National Coalition to negotiate terms on their behalf is another major sticking point. Indeed, many grassroots activists have disavowed the entire process, which they contend will only serve Assad’s interests by legitimizing his claim to power.

The expanding role of Al Qaeda-linked groups on the rebel side of the armed battle is forcing western governments to think hard about the wisdom of pushing Assad out of power.

For its part, the Syrian government insists that the immediate objective of negotiations is to bring an end to “terrorism” in Syria. Given President Assad’s consistent attachment of the terrorist label to any militant opponent of his regime, the government is effectively demanding the capitulation of all armed group as a prerequisite for substantive discussions about a political transition, which, in their view, will be led by President Assad.

Publicly, the U.S. and the UK continue to insist on Assad’s replacement, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the government is not in any imminent danger of collapsing. And in the absence of significant external assistance for the rebels, Assad will be able to remain in power for the foreseeable future.

The Syrian army still lacks the numbers to impose government control over all state territory occupied by a combined rebel force numbering between 75,000 and 110,000 fighters, according to the latest U.S. intelligences assessments. But recent rebel setbacks have greatly diminished the probability that Assad might be driven from power anytime soon.

The likelihood of foreign military intervention diminished significantly following Assad’s agreement to turn over his stockpiles of chemical weapons to the international community. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry indicated in late January that military intervention could be put back on the table if the Assad regime refuses to fulfill its obligations, but the credibility of that threat is suspect.

Washington’s embrace of the Russian-brokered chemical weapons deal was a tacit acknowledgment that resolving the ongoing crisis in Syria will require engagement with Assad. And the expanding role of Al Qaeda-linked groups on the rebel side of the armed battle is forcing western governments to think hard about the wisdom of pushing Assad out of power.


The PRS Group
About The Author The PRS Group
The PRS Group is a leading global provider of political and country risk analysis and forecasts, covering 140 countries. Based on proprietary, quantitative risk models, the firm's clientele includes financial institutions, multilateral agencies, and trans-national firms.

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