BEIRUT: Efforts to negotiate a political solution in Syria have made headway in recent weeks, with sources familiar with the plan saying members of the Syrian regime are engaged in dialogue to pave the way for a managed transition of power. With the Syrian economy approaching ruin and the military conflict grinding to a bloody stalemate, renewed and intensive efforts are under way to hammer out a Taif-like power sharing agreement that will preserve regional interests and negotiate a cease-fire, diplomatic and political sources have told The Daily Star.
But they warned rival plans to scale up the military insurgency and disagreement about President Assad’s role in a future Syria could derail the plan, saying stakeholders remained tentative.
Nonetheless, Syrian political sources told The Daily Star members of the regime are reaching out to internal opposition groups and are closer to accepting a transition plan to avoid a costly and prolonged military conflict.
“There is no outright winner in this war. Both sides are seeing that now,” said one political source familiar with the talks. “The ability of the army to maintain many fronts is waning and the funding for the rebels is drying up.”
With the United Nations deadlocked over Syria and Western powers all but ruling out outright intervention, recent efforts to address the crisis have been redirected to regional powers, led by Egypt under newly elected President Mohammad Mursi.
Mursi has announced a new Quartet initiative, drawing together regional powers Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and Syrian ally Iran, who he insists has an important role in any discussions on Syria. Mursi, speaking during his first address to the United Nations General Assembly Wednesday said he opposes any foreign intervention in Syria.
Diplomatic sources have told The Daily Star Cairo hopes to coax Iran out of its support for Assad in exchange for support to ending its regional isolation through restoration of diplomatic ties with Egypt and improved relations with other Arab countries.
The United States has remained vehemently opposed to any involvement of Iran, who it says can offer no positive contribution.
The Quartet was preparing to meet for a second preparatory meeting late Thursday night, minus Saudi Arabia, at a dinner on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, Turkish officials told The Daily Star.
So far, diplomatic sources close to the talks said there is no clear signal Iran is willing to drop Assad, who they believe “still think he has a chance.”
“Nothing for the moment suggests that Iran is willing to budge,” said one source close to negotiations.
However, sources attending the U.N. meeting pointed to “positive” indications from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who they say expressed “a willingness to engage to anything that ends the violence in Syria.”
Syrian political sources point to a recent unscheduled visit from Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi to Damascus, where he appeared alongside Syrian Prime Minister Farouk Sharaa, amid heightened speculation about his defection.
Following the meeting, Sharaa told Saudi-backed London newspaper Al-Hayat he “welcomes” the “regional initiative” planned to be proposed at the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran, saying it is “a clear political mistake” to say that Iran is “part of the problem” and urged political dialogue.
Syria’s external opposition, embodied by the Syrian National Council, opposes any dialogue with the regime and has called for external assistance to arm rebel fighters. Internal opposition opposes external intervention and advocates dialogue, while insisting on Assad’s removal.
Last week, members of the internal opposition held a rare meeting inside Damascus, in a sign some interpreted as progress on moves toward dialogue.
Syrian political sources involved in the transition talks say a power sharing government would incorporate members of the current military and political regime “not stained with blood,” alongside members of the so-called internal opposition, communists and the Muslim Brotherhood in the lead up to democratic elections, currently scheduled for 2014.
It would not include members of the SNC, they said.
They stressed the plan is still at embryonic stage.
“Things could still fall apart at any moment,” a Syrian political source said.
The biggest sticking point, according to the same diplomatic sources, was what, if any, role Assad may have in a transition period.
“There are reservations from the Syrian government, but Syria is starting to see it needs Egypt,” one Syrian political source said.
“Syria is making noises, but they have to accept since Iran has indicated a positive response to what preserves the regional interests.”
Even more unclear is how such a transitional government would assert control over proliferating and variously aligned armed opposition groups backed by the United States from stepping up calls for military intervention.
Qatar, which is reportedly funneling weapons and funds to rebel fighters in Syria through Turkey, has urged an “Arab intervention” in Syria, with Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani telling the United Nations General Assembly Wednesday Arab countries must “intervene out of their humanitarian, political and military duties.”
Qatar will host a conference early next month that participants say is aimed at revitalizing the division-wracked Syrian National Council as a means of providing political cover for a full scale intervention to establish buffer zones in the north of the country, where rebels now are in control of significant territory.
“The SNC will host new elections and try to restructure the council to provide greater military support to the rebels,” said one participant, who declined to be identified.
Analysts and opposition figures outside the country were dismissive of both the military and political initiatives.
“Something like the Taif accord just installs Assad as a militia leader, just like it worked in Lebanon,” Local Coordinating Committee spokesman Maher Esber said.
Amr al-Azm, a Syrian professor of History at Shawnee State University in Ohio and a brief member of the SNC also dismissed regime signals of a willingness to engage in dialogue as “more lies ... another attempt to buy time.”
Predicting Qatari attempts to wrest control of the armed opposition would also fail, he said: “They have an agenda and they won’t be able to unify the different components to gain legitimacy.”
“The problem with all these initiatives is that they start from the top down, instead of looking at how to gain legitimacy from the bottom up,” Azm said.
“Only those that hold the ground will dictate events.”