While the desperate flight of Syrians from their country’s war was dominating news bulletins, yet another diplomatic push to end the four-year-old conflict was quietly running into the sand.
That largely unnoticed failure has reinforced the view among Syria experts that no solution is in sight, with one of the biggest obstacles a seemingly unbridgeable international divide over president Bashar al-Assad’s future.
Syria looks set for ever greater fragmentation into a patchwork of territories, one of them the diminishing Damascus-based state where Assad appears confident of survival with backing from Russian and Iranian allies.
While some Western officials say even Assad’s allies recognise he cannot win back and stabilise Syria, Moscow is setting out its case for supporting him in ever more forthright terms.
Russia’s foreign minister in recent days reiterated the Russian view that Assad is a legitimate leader, slammed the US position to the contrary as “counterproductive”, and likened the West’s approach to Syria to its failures in Iraq and Libya.
A Syrian military official said there has recently been a “big shift” in Russian military support, including new weapons and training. “Our ties are always developing but in these days a qualitative shift has happened. We call it a qualitative shift in Arabic, which means big,” the official said.
US secretary of state John Kerry expressed concern over reports of increased Russian involvement with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov on Saturday.
Reflecting the logjam over Assad, some of the ideas being tabled for advancing a political process sidestep the question of his future altogether — at least for now, according to a diplomat.
Yet this remains the biggest single obstacle to breaking a diplomatic impasse around a war whose repercussions are being felt like never before in Europe, which faces a migration crisis fuelled by Syrian refugees.
“I don’t see a tremendous amount of change out of the Iranians or Russians. There is some talk of them being tired, but their positions are pretty firm,” said Andrew Tabler, a Middle East specialist with the Washington Institute.
“They think that Assad’s immediate departure would lead to a collapse of the regime. Washington also sees a rapid collapse of the regime as something that would be a boon for Isis. They are in a conundrum: if Assad goes right away, it would help Isis, but if he doesn’t go at all, you have no hope of putting the pieces of Syria back together again.”
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