The New York Times reports: American support for a pair of diplomatic initiatives in Syria underscores the shifting views of how to end the civil war there and the West’s quiet retreat from its demand that the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, step down immediately.
The Obama administration maintains that a lasting political solution requires Mr. Assad’s exit. But facing military stalemate, well-armed jihadists and the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, the United States is going along with international diplomatic efforts that could lead to more gradual change in Syria.
That shift comes along with other American actions that Mr. Assad’s supporters and opponents take as proof Washington now believes that if Mr. Assad is ousted, there will be nothing to check the spreading chaos and extremism. American planes now bomb the Islamic State group’s militants in Syria, sharing skies with Syrian jets. American officials assure Mr. Assad, through Iraqi intermediaries, that Syria’s military is not their target. The United States still trains and equips Syrian insurgents, but now mainly to fight the Islamic State, not the government.
Now, the United States and other Western countries have publicly welcomed initiatives — one from the United Nations and one from Russia — that postpone any revival of the United States-backed Geneva framework, which called for a wholesale transfer of power to a “transitional governing body.” The last Geneva talks failed a year ago amid vehement disagreement over whether that body could include Mr. Assad.
One of the new concepts is a United Nations proposal to “freeze” the fighting on the ground, first in the strategic crossroads city of Aleppo. The other is an initiative from Russia, Mr. Assad’s most powerful supporter, to try to spur talks between the warring sides in Moscow in late January. Diplomats and others briefed on the plans say one Russian vision is of power-sharing between Mr. Assad’s government and some opposition figures, and perhaps parliamentary elections that would precede any change in the presidency.
But the diplomatic proposals face serious challenges, relying on the leader of a rump state who is propped up by foreign powers and hemmed in by a growing and effective extremist force that wants to build a caliphate. Many of America’s allies in the Syrian opposition reject the plans, and there is little indication that Mr. Assad or his main allies, Russia and Iran, feel any need to compromise. The American-backed Free Syrian Army is on the ropes in northern Syria, once its stronghold, and insurgents disagree among themselves over military and political strategy.
And perhaps most of all, the Islamic State controls half of Syria’s territory, though mostly desert, and it has managed to strengthen its grip even as the United States and its allies try to oust it from neighboring Iraq. [Continue reading…]