The Reporters

A glimmer of a chance for a settlement in Syria?

Child being treated in Syrian hospital Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Pictures of shell-shocked Syrian children have featured in newspapers around the world

Is something shifting in the diplomacy surrounding the Syria crisis that might offer just a glimmer of a chance for a settlement?

Turkey - a long-standing supporter of the Syrian rebels is drawing ever closer to both Russia and Iran - President Assad's closest allies.

The US and Russia have long been seen as having incompatible goals in Syria, with Moscow backing the Assad regime and Washington seeing his departure as an essential pre-condition for the defeat of so-called Islamic State.

But the two have now been meeting for weeks in search of a deal.

In the coming days, US Secretary of State John Kerry will again meet his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov with conflicting reports as to whether some kind of understanding is possible.

The Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan too is engaged in high-level talks - with an important visit to Tehran thought to be in the offing.

Major escalation risk

But as a corrective to any undue optimism there's also just been a reminder of how close the crisis in Syria really is to a major escalation.

Last week, US F-22 warplanes were scrambled to provide cover for US special forces who were operating alongside Kurdish fighters near Hasakah in north-eastern Syria.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption American F22 warplanes have been used to provide cover for US special forces in Syria

The Kurds had come under attack from Syrian warplanes after local Kurdish commanders and the Syrian regime had a major falling out. The Americans have made it clear that they will not hesitate to shoot down any Syrian aircraft that endangers their forces.

So what is going on?

In a sense, the Kurds are at the heart of the problem.

Fighters from the Kurdish Popular Protection Units - also known as YPG - are among America's most effective allies in the struggle against IS.

Up to now, the Assad regime has largely left the Kurds alone; both sides having bigger problems with IS.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Until recently, the Assad regime had largely left the Kurds alone

However, these air strikes seem to signal a new strategy in Damascus; perhaps Kurdish advances are now proving a threat to Mr Assad as well.

But the risk now is clearly of an encounter between US and Syrian warplanes in air space where Russian jets may also be active.

The Kurds are also the principal reason for the Turkish government's change of heart.

Ankara's efforts to back Sunni Arab fighters against the Assad regime have had little strategic success.

Twin terror threat

Turkey's long-time blindness to the problem posed by IS has also come back to haunt it, and Turkey now faces a twin terror threat from both Islamic State and separatist Kurdish fighters.

The Turkish government has signalled that it is prepared to switch tack, searching for a common approach with both Moscow and Tehran.

It has certainly not discovered a sudden enthusiasm for President Assad.

But it now sees the chaos in Syria as leading only to one thing - the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish entity on its border - which Ankara fears will only encourage militancy among Kurdish groups inside Turkey.

That is something it sees as a fundamental threat.

American support for the Kurds in Syria only makes matters worse, inevitably causing serious friction between Ankara and Washington.

Turkey's diplomatic switch also marks a recognition that Russia's intervention in Syria has profoundly changed the military balance there.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Smoke rises from rebel-held territory after an attack by government forces

The Assad regime remains embattled and its forces over-extended.

Look at the back-and-forth struggle for control of Aleppo, for example.

But Russian air-power and Iranian-backed militias and Hezbollah fighters have made a huge difference on the ground.

Mr Assad may not win in any meaningful sense, but he looks certain to survive.

The US has been forced to accept the new Russian-imposed strategic reality as well.

Its efforts to find so-called moderate Syrian forces to confront the regime have proved half-baked and sometimes almost farcical.

As the blood-letting continues, the US is desperate to find some avenue to bring about progress; hence its opening towards Moscow.

As veteran US commentator Prof Tony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC notes, in the absence of alternatives, the US is being compelled to seek the "least bad option - ie trying to get an understanding with Russia," he says.

"The US would like to begin with something approaching a ceasefire, except for strikes on IS and Islamist extremist groups.

"It wants to get humanitarian relief flowing, and to broker some kind of government where Assad would go, and a better and more democratic government would emerge.

"The greatest immediate risk is that the war grinds on indefinitely with Assad seemingly ascendant, and Russian regional influence slowly increasing," he warns.

"Tensions with Turkey, increases in Iran's influence, more sectarian and ethnic conflicts, and the break-up of Syria are all possible additional risks."

Nobody doubts the stakes involved.

The question for the Americans is can Russia be trusted?

Unenthusiastic Pentagon

The Pentagon is unenthusiastic about any deal.

As Prof Cordesman notes: "There is a lot of concern that Russia has emerged as a major spoiler in the region; that any co-operation agreement will unravel or be violated; and that President Putin's growing influence will mean more Russian adventures and a willingness to take risks."

How much hope should be invested in a putative US-Russia deal?

Prof Cordesman highlights a fundamental question: "Is any form of Syrian stability now practical? Even the best US-Russian agreement won't unify Syria, bind regional armed factions, return refugees to their homes, or produce instant political unity," he argues.

"It could be a first step in the right direction, but only that," he adds.

This, then, is what this week's diplomacy is partly about - taking that initial first step in the right direction.

But it is also about so many other things as well: Turkey's strategic priorities; Russia's regional role; President Obama's desire to salvage something from the Syrian crisis and so on.

Meanwhile, the suffering continues.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Syrian crisis looks set to dog the next US administration

There will sadly be more pictures of shell-shocked Syrian children on the front pages of the world's newspapers.

It doesn't look as though there can be any fundamental regime-change in Syria without the total collapse of the state.

And if that were to happen, who would step into the void?

This crisis is nowhere near an end-game and the chaos in Syria looks set to dog the next US administration just as it has thwarted President Obama's efforts to turn America's attention away from the Middle East's wars.

Related Topics

More on this story