Though February is definitely low season for travel to Moscow, there's a notable uptick in Syrian travelers there now. Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Mouallem is due this weekend, and Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, president of the opposition umbrella group Syrian National Coalition, is expected there later in the week.
At a time when the prospects for ending Syria's dramatic downward spiral into total war have never seemed bleaker, the Russians -- and United Nations officials -- seem to see a few hopeful signs. The U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who was said to be ready to quit his post two months ago, has agreed to stay through the end of this year, a hint that he sees movement under the surface.
Much depends on what direction the United States now chooses to take right, too. U.N. officials hope that with a new secretary of state, the way may be cleared for a stronger U.S.-Russian partnership to shut the war down. Conversely, they fear derailment of a turn toward negotiations by the intensifying calls in Washington for U.S. arms shipments to rebels.
The cautious movement toward talks started with al-Khatib's announcement in early February that he would be willing to talk with representatives of the government in Damascus about effecting a political transition. Many in the opposition movement were aghast at his softening of their mantra that there can be no talks until president Bashar al-Assad is gone. A meeting of the coalition in Cairo on 21 February adopted a statement demanding Assad's removal and trial.
Yet despite the suspicions of its hardline elements, the coalition telegraphed its acceptance of al-Khatib's new flexibility by omitting its longstanding insistence that Assad must depart before any talks can begin. There remains, however, strong feeling among the coalition's component groups that Assad cannot be the interlocutor on the other side of a negotiating table.
Coalition members recognize that the key to breaking the political impasse is Russia -- and in this regard are of like mind with Brahimi. Assad himself has shown virtually no flexibility, continuing to tell the U.N. envoy that he will stay president till the end of his term next year, and even run for reelection. But his forces depend on Russian re-supply of arms to maintain their battlefield advantage, which gives Moscow some leverage with Assad.
Brahimi has angered Damascus by openly acknowledging that a political settlement requires a transitional leadership that makes "a clean break" with the past, a formula that is now echoed by secretary-general Ban Ki-moon -- a sure sign that the Russians have tacitly accepted this as the basis for a settlement.
Brahimi has outlined to Syrian and international stakeholders a framework for investing "full executive powers" in a new government, including most of all control over all security forces. This formula would displace Assad from power, but not necessarily remove him physically from a presidential palace in the near term -- a hologram allowing Russia to claim that it had prevented a misbegotten "regime change" like that in Libya. The sequencing of Assad's departure remains a delicate object of negotiations.
Of course, getting agreement from Assad -- and perhaps more importantly, his brother and other family associates at the helm of the security forces -- to a handover of power is the Russians' biggest challenge. It is a principal reason reason why neither Brahimi nor the Western powers on the U.N. Security Council have endorsed the repeated calls from the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights for referral of Syrian atrocity crimes to the International Criminal Court. If Assad eventually decides to retire to an agreeable resort town on the Black Sea, Russia does not want the complications of an ICC warrant for his arrest.
Nor, for that matter, do opposition fighters want to be fending off international prosecutors for their own reported war crimes, which a U.N. commission of inquiry has also been documenting.
The past year has been disastrous for Syria. The first year of unrest and repression took 3,000 Syrian lives. As Syria nears the end of its second year of conflict, the death toll is put at 70,000. The United Nations reports 901,000 Syrian refugees have fled to neighboring countries, nearly all of them in the past year. In a rare success on the humanitarian front, the United Nations succeeded in securing funding pledges from donor nations to cover its full $1.5 billion budget for relief aid for Syria's war victims.
Assad's armed forces have been pushed back on a number of fronts, but have unleashed unprecedented firepower even on residential areas in order to keep control of the biggest cities. And the regime has not yet had to commit its elite forces -- the republican guard and largely Alawite 4th division -- to the battle. The resistance is increasingly drawing in sectarian extremists, some across borders. The war is at a stalemate of intensifying lethality.
With these few cracks of light in recent diplomatic maneuvering, there is yet a small chance to shut it down.