A strategy to rescue diplomacy on Syria

The Syrian crisis is rapidly turning into a humanitarian and security nightmare with regional and possibly global implications. The conflict is now firmly entrenched in a military stalemate. While “stalemate” conveys a sense of stasis, the impasse translates into the deepening deterioration of conditions on the ground. Meanwhile, the supercharged sectarian dynamic emanating from Syria is severely threatening regional stability, particularly in Iraq and Lebanon, which have both witnessed significant increases in sectarian violence.

The conflict’s severity underscores that neither a disavowal of diplomacy nor its failure are options, yet the Geneva II process is faltering badly. If it fails, the conflict’s partisans and their external patrons will likely default to escalation and increased militarisation.

To avoid the collapse of diplomacy, the United Nations, together with the U.S. and Russia, should broaden the Geneva process by initiating parallel regional talks. This “outside in” strategy would focus on the twin goals of de-escalation and humanitarian relief. The talks would include regional actors, especially Saudi Arabia and Iran, and would focus on building regional consensus around shared issues of concern. These talks would establish three working groups to address mounting sectarian tensions, the provision of unfettered humanitarian access and the need to raise significant resources for humanitarian assistance.