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New Diplomacy Seen on U.S.-Russian Efforts to End Syrian Civil War

With President Bashar al-Assad of Syria facing battlefield setbacks, diplomats from Russia, the United States and several Middle Eastern powers are engaged in a burst of diplomatic activity, trying to head off a deeper collapse of the country that could further strengthen the militant group Islamic State.

Russia, Mr. Assad's most powerful backer, has built new ties with Saudi Arabia, a fervent opponent, and even brokered a meeting between high-ranking Saudi and Syrian intelligence officials. On Tuesday, the Saudi foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, met with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, in Moscow, wrangling over the fate of Mr. Assad.

Unusual meetings have come in quick succession. Last week, the top Russian, American and Saudi envoys held their first three-way meeting on Syria; Russian officials briefed Syria's foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem. He then met officials in Oman, whose ties to both Saudi Arabia and Iran raised the prospect of talks between those archrivals. Russia stopped blocking an international inquiry into who has used chemical weapons in Syria, a longstanding American priority.

The flurry of diplomacy suggests that Russia and the United States, whose differences have long jammed efforts to resolve the conflict, are making newly concerted strides toward goals they have long claimed to share: a political solution to Syria's multisided civil war and better strategies to fight the Islamic State.

Russia has played the most prominent public role so far in the new diplomacy. Some analysts say that the discussion reflects a softening of the Obama administration's long-held position that "Assad must go," and a fear, shared with Russia, that the Islamic State could be the primary beneficiary if Mr. Assad's government continues to weaken, as they expect, or even to collapse entirely, which they view as less likely but increasingly possible.

The Syrian government has been jarred by a series of defeats on the battlefield and difficulty recruiting for its forces, even among members of Mr. Assad's minority Alawite sect. Having lost large sections of the country to the Islamic State and various rebel forces, it is concentrating its remaining military strength in the capital, Damascus, and other crucial cities in western Syria.

Mr. Assad's opponents, too, have reason to reassess strategy; American efforts to build a proxy force in Syria have largely failed, insurgent groups have their own attrition problems, and Saudi Arabia and Turkey face political and security blowback at home.

As the military situation continues to deteriorate, the major powers are growing increasingly nervous. Emile Hokayem, a Middle East analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies and a vociferous critic of Mr. Assad, said the United States was letting Russia take the lead because "they don't want to own this." If anything, Mr. Hokayem added, "it's the United States that has moved closer to Russia's position" that Mr. Assad could be part of the transitional government that is the stated goal of any negotiations.

Regional news outlets have attributed the outburst of diplomatic activity to the aftermath of the tentative nuclear deal with Iran, which has "has thrown a great stone into the region's waters," as the Jordanian newspaper Al Ghad put it. The pan-Arab daily Rai al-Youm went so far as to declare that "a political resolution is taking shape with notable speed."

But analysts in the region, across the political spectrum, strongly caution that no breakthroughs can be expected soon. Fundamental disconnects remain, and in the diplomatic dance, each side claims that its adversaries are coming around to its point of view.

Russian and Iranian officials suggest that Saudi Arabia, the United States and allies like Turkey are coming to realize that fighting terrorism is more important than ousting Mr. Assad, though Mr. Jubeir insisted after his meeting with Mr. Lavrov that "there is no place for Assad in the future of Syria." Conversely, American and Turkish officials, who contend that his rule drives radicalism, say that Russia has grown more willing to see him replaced.

And even if real consensus can be reached, any agreement would have little meaning right now, when many forces on the ground still believe they can gain by fighting. Any deal that emerges would be likely to cover only the government-held western spine of Syria and parts of the south, where relatively moderate insurgents are strongest. It is virtually inconceivable that the Islamic State, entrenched in eastern Syria, or the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda's arm in Syria and a powerful force in the northwest, would be included.

What is nonetheless taking place internationally is a shift in tone, a sense of movement below the surface. That alone is notable in a context of divides that can seem unbridgeable, after four and a half years of fighting that has killed at least a quarter-million people and driven the worst refugee crisis in a generation.

Of all the recent diplomatic exchanges and openings, none is more important than the apparent new spirit of cooperation between Russia and the United States. Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of a council that advises the Kremlin on foreign policy, said that conversations were returning to the topic of Syria after a year of exclusive focus on the Iran deal, with each side a bit "less firm" in its position.

"Saudi still believes that Assad should go, but now they are a little less sure that the alternative will be better," he said in a recent interview with The New York Times. "Russia still believes he should stay, but cannot ignore that the general situation is changing, that the strategic position for Syria is much worse now than before."

Senior American officials say Russian officials have appeared to be more open in recent weeks to discussions about replacing Mr. Assad. These officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic deliberations, say Moscow is increasingly worried about Mr. Assad's precarious position and the rise of extremist groups, which have recruited several thousand Russian citizens to fight in Syria.

But the discussions are tentative, and the officials said that if Russia someday agreed to broker a deal to move Mr. Assad aside, it would almost certainly insist on another Alawite, a member of Mr. Assad's minority sect.

"It's encouraging, but we're still a long ways off," said one senior American official.

Russian officials strongly deny their position has changed.

Mr. Hokayem and other analysts note the Obama administration has recently echoed some Russian positions, treating extremist groups as a more urgent threat than Mr. Assad, and saying that Iran, Syria's close ally, would have to buy into any political solution.

That is how Syria's government has framed the new diplomacy, with the deputy foreign minister, Fayssal al-Mekdad, calling it "a clear and explicit recognition from the countries leading the war on Syria that they have erred and must step back and take responsibility in this regard."

There have been subtle shifts of diplomatic language that suggest the United States and its allies could even be backing off one of their main demands -- that Mr. Assad step down as a prerequisite for forming a transitional government.

That has been the critical difference in how Russia and the United States interpret the internationally agreed Geneva framework, which calls for the transfer of power to a transitional government acceptable to all sides but does not specify whether Mr. Assad can be part of it. The United States and its allies have long said no; Russia says yes, adding that Mr. Assad's departure cannot be a precondition for talks.

The pro-government newspaper Al Watan noted that at last week's three-way meeting in Qatar, Secretary of State John Kerry did not repeat the American demand that Mr. Assad step aside. He declared only that the Syrian leader had "lost his legitimacy."

And even the Saudi newspaper Al Watan -- no connection to the Syrian one -- used a notable phrase, saying that while Mr. Assad's government was to blame for Syria's troubles, a solution could come " either by reforming it, or by removing it immediately, or in stages."

Such shifts have driven an emerging theory about the outlines of an eventual compromise -- albeit one that could take years to achieve.

The gist is that a new government would be formed including elements of the current government -- perhaps including Mr. Assad for a finite period -- and moderate Syrian opposition figures. The army would absorb some insurgents from relatively moderate groups. Alawites and majority Sunnis would both be represented.

Then, as the Syrian analyst Ibrahim Hamidi put it in the Saudi-owned pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat, "the government and army will have the necessary political legitimacy and sectarian representation to 'unite against terrorism.' "

That scenario fits in with a plan that Iran put forward amid last week's flurry of meetings, calling for an immediate cease-fire, the formation of a national unity government, a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the rights of all Syria's ethnic and religious groups, and internationally supervised elections.

But how that would actually look would undoubtedly be hard to agree on.

As the Jordanian newspaper al-Ghad concluded, with grudges "dug deep over half a decade, with all the blood spilled and hatred that has been spread," ending conflict among entrenched armed groups will mean "offering concessions and dealing in details, each one of which contains a thousand devils!"

[Source: By Anne Barnard, The New York Times, Beirut, 11Aug15]

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