In lieu of the upcoming Geneva International Conference on Syria, Russia Direct asked Russian and American experts to predict how events in the country and in the Middle East in general are going to unfold.

Photo: Corbis/Foto S.A.

Although the world has collectively made several attempts to help resolve the ongoing conflict in Syria, nothing seems to have worked: The Syrian government and the opposition are too reluctant to sit down at the negotiating table and come up with a compromise. 

The upcoming conference on Syria in Geneva looks like Russia’s, the United States’ and the UN’s last desperate attempt to tackle the standoff diplomatically. 

Representatives of Russia, the United States and the UN will meet to discuss Syria on June 25. As the Joint Special Representative of the United Nations and the Arab League for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi noted, the three parties will once again try to “see about windows of opportunity to hold the conference as soon as possible.”

Ahead of the international conference, Russia Direct asked the world’s leading experts whether diplomatic approaches to resolving the Syrian crisis, which began in March of 2011, have been exhausted.             

Alexey Malashenko, scholar in residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center, co-chair of the center’s Religion, Society, and Security Program, teacher, the Higher School of Economics (2007-2008), professor, Moscow State Institute of International Relations (2000-2006) 

I think diplomatic approaches have not been exhausted thus far, primarily because a military intervention is not the best scenario for Russia and for the United States, as well as for Europe. Such meddling may result in a schism within the country, and the Syrian crisis may have a very negative effect on its neighbors. 

In addition, a military intervention may give more power and authority to the extremists, whose influence will then be very difficult to counter. Who will deal with them, and how, is a pretty difficult question. These extremists may be another burden for President Barack Obama.

Finally, a military scenario will destroy [current Syrian President Bashar] Assad’s elite and will profoundly affect Russia’s influence in the Middle East.  Thus, the resolution of the Syrian crisis is likely to be delayed. The country will most likely be divided, and this will fuel tensions in the region. In addition to the Iraqi conflict, we will also have an unresolved Syrian one.

Gordon M. Hahn, senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Washington, D.C.

For all practical purposes, the political and diplomatic solutions to the conflict in Syria have been exhausted. Even if by some miracle the regime of Bashar al-Assad and some moderate elements in the opposition were to come to some agreement, the conflict will persist for years.

If an agreement were to leave Assad and the Alawite minority to which he belongs in power of some rump state and leave the rest of the country to the rebels, then the jihadi element led by al-Qaeda allied Jabhat al-Nusra will continue to fight from eastern Syria against both the Shiite Alawite and the Sunni Syrian quasi-states. If there is no agreement, then there is the risk of an escalation of the conflict, drawing in the pro-Sunni Western and Arab powers and pro-Shiite Iran and Russia. While it is not certain that either the West or Russia would be involved further, human nature and the growing distance between Washington and Moscow leaves little room for hope.

Should Assad somehow survive, he is likely to be more intransigent regarding the West, will seek greater protection including arms purchases from Russia. He might even compromise on ideology, reducing the secular Baathist element of his regime for a more Iranian-style Islamism. Russian President Vladimir Putin is in no mood to compromise, and should Assad remain in power, Putin is likely to indulge him and Tehran considerably more than he has to date. Such a move would put an end to whatever partnerships remain between Russia and the West, including the dead "reset" with the United States. The worst-case scenario is that Russia goes rogue and eschews all international norms except those it finds convenient.     

Elena Suponina, director, Central Asia and Middle East Center, Russian Institute for Strategic Studies 

So far we can still rely on diplomacy to resolve the Syrian impasse, but every day, diplomatic approaches have been falling short of their goals. This is partly due to the fact that there is no understanding on who will participate in the negotiations on behalf of the opposition. While the Syrian government expresses its readiness to negotiate, responsibility for the delay should be shifted to the Syrian opposition to a certain extent.  

Only international mediators – the United States and Russia – can persuade the Syrian opposition and the Syrian government to sit down and negotiate. If they fail to achieve this goal, we can expect any scenario to unfold in Syria, including a military intervention.   

Michael E. O’Hanlon, visiting lecturer, Princeton University, adjunct professor, John Hopkins University, senior fellow and director of research, Foreign Policy Department, Brookings Institute

I don’t believe diplomatic options have been exhausted. I favor a change of government, but with a power-sharing arrangement that protects Alawite [a religious group in Syria that adheres to Shia Islam – editor’s note] prerogatives and involves a peace deal followed by the deployment of international peace implementation troops (including Americans and, if they so wish, Russians).  

But I believe it will take some effort and time to get the two big powers, and also the various Syrian factions, to agree to anything like this.