The reason behind all the communications was not over the speed of the regime’s fall, but rather over concerns of its sudden fall and the collapse of the army. This is not a hyperbolic expression rejecting a repeat of the Iraqi model, but rather a certainty for intelligence agencies in major Western countries. Various intelligence and executive agencies held many meetings to evaluate the information that “according to the available data, the collapse might happen any minute, especially since this information was based upon ‘tapping phone calls of regime officials.’”
During their meetings, American and European officials questioned the credibility of this estimate. Some believe that the regime and its allies are leaking this kind of information to reduce pressure on it, and give the impression that ISIS is the only possible alternative to it. The scenario could occur if ISIS occupied Damascus after destroying the Army of Islam in Eastern Ghouta, or if it took Homs, thus isolating the north from the south, and splitting the regime areas apart.
However, dealing with the possibility of the regime’s fall has become a key issue in the major political negotiations. They are discussing different scenarios for the coming change in Syria. The key factor is the ability to both fight terrorism and form a legitimate government in Syria at the same time.
First, Obama has sent high-ranking security officials to regional capitals to convince them to reduce the military and financial support they are providing to Islamic factions. He has also sent a military official to Ankara to end a previous agreement between Turkey and another military official supporting the opposition. The red lines stipulated that the opposition is not allowed to enter Damascus, that the Army of Islam, led by Zahran Alloush, is to be considered Damascus’ first line of defense, and that entering the Syrian coast and Suweida, mainly inhabited by Druze, is forbidden.
At the same time, political negotiations to discuss all the possibilities are being held. They are just verbal negotiations that have led to no agreement. The new technique being used here is called the hypothetical approach. It is the “what if” approach taken by Moscow, Washington, London and European and regional countries.
John Kerry, the United States Secretary of State, and his previous envoy, Daniel Rubinstein, have visited Moscow. There was also a phone call between presidents Putin and Obama, and between Putin and British Prime Minister David Cameron. In addition to that, a meeting between the Russian and the British national security chiefs was held a few days earlier. The starting point was always “what if the regime fell now?”
Whoever goes to meet the Russian officials always come out with the same impression, that Putin, who was personally involved in the Syrian issue after meeting Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem, is “not satisfied” with the way the regime is dealing with his ideas. Putin was not satisfied with the lack of response from President Bashar al-Assad over confidence-building measures before “Moscow 1,” or the way the government delegation headed by Bashar al-Jaafari handled things there. Putin is also aware of the systematic policy used by Iran as it is trying to take apart the Syrian army and form “small armies” that follow Iran. Putin is also aware of the importance of a political solution for the terrorism problem. The Kremlin was told by American officials that “the regime is over, it is only a matter of time,” but still has not shown a desire to change the regime or halt the provision of weapons and equipment to it.
So then, what are Russian and Western officials negotiating?
All negotiations are still verbal, taking the “what if” approach. The Russian officials are for the first time involved in the hypothetical questions, asking: what about accountability, for Syrian officials, and over their financial assets? Where will they live after the regime change? What will be the Alawites’ role in the power structure? What about the army and the security institutions? How long will the transitional period be?
In return, Western officials ask the Russians if the formation of a transitional government would be possible if the West accepted that Assad remain in power, at least at first. And If the West agreed on forming an alliance against terrorism, would it be possible to form a legitimate government to oversee the army and its restructuring—one that the international and regional community could communicate with?
When the West says Assad is part of the solution, do they mean that he should remain during the negotiations in the transitional period, or during the transitional period itself? In addition, does saying that the West could accept an Alawite military leader mean that it gives up on possible others? Who would this individual be? Many names are being suggested in this context, some of them are from the “old guard” or their relatives. Some of the Western countries have presented executive programs that included their readiness to send military experts to Syria to train the “national army” after the formation of a “legitimate government.” They have also presented reconstruction projects and several other projects. Different parties’ analysis of how long the regime will last has differed, as some see it lasting for only six months or a year, while one Arab leader thinks it could remain for two years. However, they all share the same fear of a sudden collapse.
The importance of the report that Staffan De Mistura, the UN envoy, will soon submit to Ban Ki-moon, lies in its possibility of being brought to the Security Council to gain international political support for the “road map” he will present. The road map discusses the formation of a transitional government and his interpretation of the “Geneva 1” statement.
But the most important issue is having an understanding between the major countries after calls between Putin and Obama, and after the meeting between Putin and Cameron. Thus, the next meeting of the United Nation General Assembly in September should be perfect timing to re-launch the political process, with the hopes that it leads to the resumption of negotiations with “Geneva 3.”
The real bet here is that concerns over the escalation of threats and the proximity of the expanding alliance raids could bring all the rival regional parties together. Final agreement over the [Iranian] nuclear issued could also help push things toward a political agreement. At this point, Obama has several considerations for the region: the nuclear issue, fighting ISIS, the Syrian conflict, and Yemen. The bet is that everything would change after the nuclear issue is settled.
Jordan’s concerns that ISIS is moving toward the Jordanian and the Gulf borders are increasing. Israel also has concerns. Jordan is pushing toward supporting its project of establishing a 20 km buffer zone in the south of Syria protected by the opposition, and warning the regime against entering it. Turkey is worried about the increasing influence of PYD, which is allied with the PKK in the north of Syria. Therefore, the Turkish leadership is calling for a 33 km buffer zone in certain areas. It had negotiated its readiness to stop supporting the Islamic factions if the alliance provided air cover for the moderate factions in their war against ISIS.
It is the same for Iran, which is now fighting for what is left in Syria between Damascus and Tartous. Faced with the impossibility of a complete victory, the regime is now ready to negotiate deals that allow it to stay in its areas, but at the same time give more power to local leaders.