Will Islamic State attacks bolster prospects for political solution in Syria?

The West and Russia are closer than ever to agreeing to implementing a peaceful end to Syria's civil war. But key differences remain, including over the future of Bashar al-Assad.

Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters
A hand-written message is seen on flowers placed near the French embassy to commemorate victims of attacks in Paris, in Moscow on Sunday. The words on the poster reads: 'It is our common grief. France! Russia is with you!'

After multiple major attacks in less than two weeks – including the alleged bombing of a Russian jetliner over Egypt, a double-suicide bombing in Lebanon, and Friday's deadly attacks in Paris – a resolution to the Syrian conflict and the threat of the Islamic State has become top priority for Europe's major powers.

Perhaps most crucially, the West and Russia have moved closer than at any time in the past four years toward a political solution in Syria, which many believe is central to fighting IS-inspired terrorism.

“There is a new pragmatism emerging in Europe to work with Russia and Iran, and other European partners, and to try and work towards a political solution,” says Eugene Rogan, director of the Middle East Centre at the University of Oxford.

But the obstacles to a Syrian solution remain high, amid Western reticence about further military involvement there and unresolved differences between the Kremlin and the West over the future of President Bashar al-Assad.

“This is a very critical junction for where we go from here,” says Sajjan Gohel, a London-based international security director for the Asia-Pacific Foundation. He says the declaration of “war” by French President François Hollande, and the support by President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron, amid other heady talk, must be followed by action. “Otherwise [IS] are going to believe they can get away with it again.... This can only be a game-changer if the West does something meaningful.”

A political solution

Speaking on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Turkey, Mr. Obama joined with President Hollande in calling the Paris attack a pivotal moment. “We will redouble our efforts, working with other members of the coalition, to bring about a peaceful transition in Syria and to eliminate [IS] as a force that can create so much pain and suffering for people in Paris, in Ankara, and in other parts of the globe," he said.

US-led efforts to eradicate IS were complicated after Russia intervened six weeks ago, with an expeditionary force of about 50 attack aircraft and supporting troops. But there is a growing consensus, given the reach and sophistication of IS terror, that Russia has helped change the diplomatic conversation, especially the idea that overthrowing Assad is an impossible immediate goal.

“It is dawning on everyone that the only way out of this is a political solution that takes into account the Assad government and the large numbers of people it represents. It hasn't survived for four years, with all the forces arrayed against it, without strong social roots," says Sergei Karaganov, a senior Russian foreign policy expert. "It's also clear that Russia will have to be a part of that solution. The old US approach of just getting together a bunch of like-minded 'friends of Syria' to decide things is finished.”

The terror attacks in Paris will add to the sense of urgency, at least for Europeans, who have already felt increasing pressures from the growing refugee crisis to move on a negotiated solution for Syria, experts say.

Talks in Vienna on Syria have already made more progress in the past 10 days than in the previous four years, says Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the international affairs committee of the Federation Council, Russia's Senate. A rough draft of a transitional program lays out a path to a ceasefire, a new Syrian constitution, and fresh elections within 18 months. Crucially, this was jointly announced by Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry in Vienna on Saturday.

“A lot has happened rather quickly in the wake of Russia's intervention, and it's pleasant to note that our initiatives are finally getting some traction," says Mr. Klimov. "But peoples' minds are also being focused by the victories the Russian-backed Syrian forces are gaining in the field, and by the terrible tragedies from recent terrorist strikes in Turkey, Lebanon, and now Paris. We do see movement, and we are hopeful."

One agreement made at the Vienna talks that the Russians say is key is the general consensus that any government that succeeds the Assad regime must be "secular." That will exclude most of the Syrian rebels opposed to Assad, if implemented, they say.

The limits of military might

At the same time, the US and Europe are weighing what the next steps are in their own military involvement. France ordered its fighter jets to carry out a massive bombardment Sunday night on Raqqa, the Syrian city that IS claims is its caliphate, as part of a growing global momentum to stop the spread of terrorism.

The US has said it plans to step up its efforts but that it won’t put boots on the ground for now. “The further introduction of US troops to fully re-engage in ground combat in the Middle East is not the way to deal with this challenge,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, the president’s deputy national security adviser, said Sunday.

Unlike France and the US, Britain has not conducted airstrikes against Syria, amid a public wearied by British involvement in the Iraq war of 2003, politicians skeptical of the efficacy of bombing there, and a nation generally looking inward.

But Mr. Cameron has stirred the debate, warning the population that the new degree of planning and coordination – as well as ambition for mass causalities – seen by IS in Paris makes the UK more vulnerable.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said Monday, according to local media reports, that his government will try to win anew parliamentary support for airstrikes in Syria. But Mr. Rogan in Oxford says it will be an uphill battle to convince politicians that joining a bombing campaign will not squander their diplomatic potential, which many see as the more important role for Britain in Syria.

Some have even called for NATO’s Article 5 to be invoked, which declares that all members join forces if one NATO member is attacked. But Sven Biscop, the director of the Europe in the World program at the Egmont – Royal Institute for International Relations in Brussels, a think tank associated with Belgian Foreign Affairs ministry, says there is no need to put a “NATO flag in the Middle East," he says. "It will contribute to image of this being a crusade.”

Instead he says that long-term plans from Vienna and private talks between the West and Russia and allies is where the solutions will be found. This will help bolster support for more troops from countries in the surrounding region as well as help garner pressure on issues like Saudi Arabia financing. “This is where we need the acceleration,” he says.

What about Assad?

There are still concerns that the US-Russia rivalry in Syria could scuttle diplomacy and turn Syria into a cold war-style proxy war.

The issue of Assad, and whether he might be allowed to run in new elections, remains the key obstacle. The US and all its allies insist that while Assad may be allowed to play some sort of transitional role, he must leave soon. The Russians say they are not wedded to Assad, but remain vague on when and how he might relinquish power.

That might stymie forward movement in the peace process, since most Syrian rebels have insisted they will never deal with Assad. “One of the problems at Vienna is that we still don't have any definition of 'moderate' rebels. Everyone will agree that IS and Al Qaeda must be excluded. But there are many rebels who took up arms to depose Assad, that is why they are in the field,” says Sergei Strokan, international affairs columnist with the Moscow daily Kommersant.

"It is urgently necessary to drop all the polemics, and identify those forces who might be ready to stop shooting, sit down at the negotiating table, and then participate in a provisional government. This sort of thing has happened in many places, at many times, and it's perfectly possible for Syria. But none of these groups is going to engage with Russia and come into the process until there is clarity about Assad. It's time for the Russian government to seriously address this issue," Mr. Strokan says.

• Alexis Xydias contributed reporting from Paris.

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