THE BLOG
01/25/2016 10:31 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2017

Geneva: Throwing the Hail Mary Pass

TIMOTHY A. CLARY via Getty Images

For the second time in 30 months the United States is attempting, in its Syria diplomacy, a "Hail Mary pass" -- a last-second attempt from a very unfavorable field position to snatch victory from near-certain defeat. In 2013, Washington hoped that a conference in Geneva would somehow ease the Assad regime toward the exits in spite of effective Hezbollah military intervention on the regime's behalf. The result was a fumble rather than a forward pass. Now Washington hopes that conference room chatter can neutralize another round of Assad regime military gains, this time bought by Russian aircraft and Iranian-assembled militiamen. What would it take this time for a desperate maneuver to succeed? What are the criteria for success? What is the definition of failure? What alternative exists if the long pass from the ten-yard line falls short?

From the standpoint of Washington, diplomatic success now would entail the replacement of the Assad regime - the family and its enablers - by a decent, competent, pluralistic, and non-sectarian transitional governing authority; a national unity government capable of rallying all Syrians to the eradication of ISIL (ISIS, Daesh, or the Islamic State) in Syria.

The reason why the Obama administration finds itself - to run with the football metaphor - so deep in its own territory with time (meaning its own time in office) running out, is because it has not attached as much operational importance to Assad's ouster as Russia and Iran have to his preservation. Fear of an Iraq-like "slippery slope" has handicapped President Obama in Syria. Meanwhile his Russian and Iranian counterparts have acted with resolve to preserve a reckless, destructive, but useful client. They have done so fully aware that Assad, through a political survival strategy featuring mass collective punishment, midwifed ISIL in Syria and now sustains it. Neither Iran nor Russia loses sleep over the threats posed by ISIL to the West and the region. Rather they see the Raqqa-based band of murderers, thieves, and rapists as a useful foil for their similarly unattractive client.

Still, Secretary of State John Kerry persistently makes the case that ISIL truly is, in fact, the common enemy that Washington, Moscow, and Tehran all share in Syria. And with rhetorical reinforcement from others - notably the president and the defense secretary - he has insisted, quite accurately, that Assad is an asset of incalculable value to ISIL. After all, given Assad's brutally sectarian campaign of mass homicide, how could he (of all people) possibly rally Syrians to a united front against ISIL? How can he be other than a force for division, dissension, and destruction? Washington's reasoning is unassailable, if plaintive. It knows full well the value Iran and Russia place on ISIL's near-term survival in Syria. It hopes to convince Tehran and Moscow that they are making a grievous error.

Notwithstanding a dubious recent report claiming that Russian President Vladimir Putin dispatched a senior intelligence official (now obligingly dead) to Damascus to tell Bashar al-Assad to pack his bags, neither Russia nor Iran has accepted Kerry's argumentation in an operationally relevant way. Yes, they know that their client is a gift that keeps on giving to ISIL. Yes, they know his strategy is bloody-minded and his tactics brutal. Yet for separate but compelling reasons they have each defined Assad's political survival as vital for their respective national security interests. For Moscow, Assad is the living, breathing rebuke to what it claims is an American-led, worldwide regime change jihad. For Tehran, Assad is the key to keeping at least part of Syria under its thumb and in the orbit of Hezbollah, its Lebanese militia.

Assuming Washington's approach to the Assad side of Syria remains essentially one of talk, can Kerry somehow persuade Moscow and Tehran that they would - at least - be no worse off if they were to drop this blood-soaked family and permit its replacement by a non-criminal, nationalistic, and politically centrist authority consisting of opposition and government figures? Notwithstanding the value of Assad both to Tehran and Moscow, this is not necessarily mission impossible. Unless, of course, Iran and Russia think otherwise and aim simply to prevail militarily, using the diplomatic process to buy time.

In June 2012, at Geneva, Russia signed up to a formula for complete, negotiated regime change in Syria. It has since backed away from the Action Group for Syria's Final Communique, which called for a fully empowered transitional governing body to be negotiated by Syrians (opposition and government) on the basis of mutual consent. Moscow's signing of the document on the last day of June 2012 may have been a fatigue-induced error. Surely it did not mean to put its client's political fate in the hands of his opponents, which is precisely what the document did.

Unless, therefore, Moscow now opts to honor its signature and cast Assad adrift, some arrangement might have to be reached to cushion, camouflage, and even negate the regime change terms of reference guiding the current round of negotiations. This assumes, of course, that Moscow is open to an arrangement that respects its client while easing him to the side for the sake of national unity. Its military operations to date suggest, however, it is not open to a compromise. Rather they signal a bare-knuckled attempt by Putin to defeat opposition forces and oblige his American counterpart - Obama or his successor - to choose in Syria between the Assad regime and ISIL's bogus caliph. Putin appears to be trying to create militarily the binary choice that Assad and his apologists in the West have been advocating for years.

If, however, Moscow were to conclude that Assad's sheer toxicity is pure poison for Russian interests in the Arab world, perhaps an honorable arrangement could be reached. Again: it is the perception of thwarting violent regime change - not a naval gas pump in Tartous - that is most important to Vladimir Putin.

Perhaps, for example, negotiations could configure and install a transitional governing body - created on the basis of mutual consent, exercising full executive power, and excluding regime (family and entourage) figures for the sake of peace and national unity - while permitting Assad to retain, until national elections, the presidential title and all immunities (perhaps extended indefinitely on an emeritus basis) pertaining thereto. Assad could then repair (perhaps in the company of Republican Guard elements) to the presidential compound in Latakia, where he could be free ultimately to trade-in his legal immunities for a run in internationally supervised national elections. Who knows? The prospect of a quarter-million wrongful death lawsuits and a referral to the International Criminal Court might not dampen his enthusiasm for a political campaign; even one in which most voters would have experienced displacement and other grave indignities at his hands.

Such an arrangement would, no doubt, strike millions of Syrians victimized by the family's remorseless criminality as profoundly unjust, given the scope and impact of the regime's depredations. But it could stop the fighting, end the collective punishment, expedite humanitarian aid, initiate reconstruction, and make reconciliation thinkable: none of which is possible while Assad wields executive power. Conventional Russian interests in Syria would be preserved, and Putin would be free to say anything he wants about the wages of regime change and the wonders of having stopped it cold in Syria.

Satisfying Iranian needs while sidelining Assad could be more complicated. Tehran is fully aware that there is no Syrian constituency for its tutelage or for national subordination to Hezbollah; none beyond the family and its entourage. Perhaps the transitional governing body could go slow in loosening the Iranian-Hezbollah grip on Syria. But there is potential hazard in the West signing up for something that could extend or even perpetuate Iran's ability to support its terrorist murder incorporated in Lebanon from a safe haven in Syria. Ideally - though not likely anytime soon, unfortunately - detente between Israel and Iran would enable Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah and his Hezbollah leadership team to retire to Qom, leaving the movement's Lebanese cadres free to focus on purely Lebanese politics and interests.

The Vienna process launched in October 2015 aims to have the transitional governing body in place by mid-2016. If it is not installed by the end of June it should - absent compelling reasons to believe that a brief extension would achieve the objective - be abandoned. Indeed, the process should not even extend through June unless sieges and attacks on civilian neighborhoods - overwhelmingly the work of the regime and its external enablers - are substantially ended, and political prisoners released. Civilian protection is table ante for the process: even before ceasefire arrangements between combatants. Without it, good faith negotiations are impossible. Without it, ISIL will harvest many more recruits: in Syria and around the world.

Diplomatic failure would pose difficult questions to the administration. Does it really wish to defeat ISIL - at least in Syria, where it is a deeply resented imposed presence - or not? Does it really believe Assad enables and sustains ISIL in Syria - or not? Does it wish to invite for itself or for its successor the obscene possibility of having, in the absence of alternatives killed off by Moscow and Tehran, no choice but to make common cause with the barrel bomber in chief against ISIL - or not? Notwithstanding the president's belief that the Vietnam and Iraq wars represent the historical quintessence of American power projection abroad, would he be willing in the time left to him to consider Syria important enough to protect civilians and to prevent Russia and Iran from doing as they please? If diplomacy fails, surely the alternative revolves around making Russia, Iran, and their client pay heavily for slaughtering Syrians and enabling ISIL. It also means having to go after ISIL in Syria with effective regional and American ground forces, as Assad's continued presence will preempt a united Syrian front.

Hail Mary passes have sometimes worked. Perhaps John Kerry has a good arm. Syria's clock, however, will continue to run even if the diplomatic long pass falls short. If it does, will the United States simply 'take a knee' and run that clock down to January 20, 2017? Not if it is serious about the national security threat posed by ISIL. And not if it is truly alarmed by the role of Syria's Assad regime - and its enablers - in aiding and abetting that threat.

Frederic C. Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, served as a special adviser for transition in Syria at the State Department in 2012.