Tomorrow’s relaunching of Syrian peace talks should not overreach. “Getting to Yes” on the future of Bashar al-Assad should not be the topic at hand, for it will go nowhere in the short run.
Instead, put first things first. The conferees should seek and achieve consensus—publicly—on three principles: that no party in Syria will succeed in achieving its goals through armed conflict, that continued conflict is devastating innocent Syrian civilians, and that a negotiated future transitional authority in Syria will have the legitimacy to use force against malefactors inside Syria.
This will successfully undermine any party’s position that continued warfare is a better alternative to a negotiated solution (paraphrasing the well-known Harvard Negotiation Project principle). It will provide the basis for all parties to agree on immediate humanitarian relief to all non-combatants, especially in facilities protected under international law. And it will provide the basis for the future Syrian legitimate authority, with outside help, to destroy any extremists who are still determined to use violence.
Neither the Assad regime nor the violent extremists of the self-styled Islamic state will be eliminated through armed conflict. The Assad regime in theory could implode with unpredictable and potential horrific consequences, but that is unlikely in the short run. In turn, the violent extremists won’t just disappear, either. Most Syrian oppositionists are not as focused on ISIL as the US, Europe, and the Syrian Kurds are. However, it is conceivable that with continued international coalition pounding, ISIL and Jabhat an-Nusra might be sufficiently degraded, overrun, kicked out of Dodge or killed. Still, remnants will survive to fight another day, on the lookout for ungoverned spaces to occupy. And they might succeed.
Without legitimate and effective governance in Damascus, achieved through a negotiated political transition, either of these scenarios are much worse than a negotiated transition. The conferees and their international backers should focus on first things first.