Any hope of stemming the tragic loss of life in Syria today rests on finding a political way out of the civil war. Given enduring domestic and regional support for both parties there is, quite simply, little to no prospect of one side emerging victorious despite the maximalist aims of both parties. External military intervention, even if limited to deterring further chemical weapons use, is only likely to move the conflict further away from its necessary political reckoning by strengthening the rebel's ambitions of total victory and provoking counter-escalation by Assad's international backers. Not only does this risk further entrenching the conflict dynamics within Syria, it also threatens to draw the West into an expanding regional sectarian conflict. As such, it is imperative that an alternative route be sought after, as difficult as it may now appear.
For a political solution to work the West urgently needs to prioritise de-escalation and an end to the bloodshed over broader political ambitions. To date the West's push for a political track has been weakened by its insistence that, despite his enduring strength, Assad cannot be part of the transition process, as well as an unwillingness to engage key actors with important stakes, notably Iran; pre-conditions that clearly doom any hope of a negotiated solution to failure. While engagement with Assad and his allies may appear unpalatable given the regime's horrific brutality, after two years of devastating conflict it represents the only way of working towards much-needed de-escalation.
For any chance of success, the West must move away from this diplomatic-lite approach and embark on a concerted effort to secure international accord aimed at pressing the warring parties towards genuine political deal-making. Given the material dependence of both sides on external backers there is clear leverage to be deployed here, though it will have to be grounded in compromise. This will have to include reaching out to the new Iranian president, who has offered some signs of a greater willingness to compromise, as well as setting aside pre-conditions regarding Assad's immediate fate to draw in Russia, for whom this has been a longstanding redline. However, it will also have to include pressing the Syrian opposition, and its regional allies in the Gulf, to accept the necessity of political compromise, a position that West has hitherto been unwilling to forcefully press.
The debate now being waged over chemical weapons and intervention may represent a make or break moment for any diplomatic prospects. Given that punitive bombings, particularly in advance of any definitive evidence from UN investigators, would be sure to polarise international actors, it is hard to see how they could contribute towards any subsequent diplomatic push. A planned meeting this week on Syria between the US and Russia has already been postponed and the UN Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has been marginalised. An alternative response may, by contrast, offer an opportunity. Given that Russia and Iran have both acknowledged and condemned the use of chemical weapons a smarter response might be to leverage this common position.
In the immediate term, if there is a diplomatic alternative it might include: (a) working at the UN to expand the mandate of the inspectors regarding the allegations of chemical weapons use; pushing Russia on this issue will play to an area in which they are on the defensive - rather than where their position is stronger, namely in opposing military force; (b) thereby seeking to establish a clearer evidentiary basis on chemical weapons use in advance of further discussions at the Security Council; (c) this would build on the positions that Russia, China and Iran have taken against chemical weapons use and for greater evidence, in order to push Assad on inspectors and broader chemical weapons oversight; (d) a second phase for such an approach, building on chemical weapons accord, could then be a broader diplomatic effort whereby key international and regional actors agree to push the two sides towards a power-sharing compromise at the negotiating table and potentially the return of international monitors to try and secure localised cease-fires.