Bashar al-Assad is not going anywhere.
Four years after President Barack Obama’s August 2011 ultimatum that the Syrian president must go, world leaders descending on New York for the United Nations General Assembly are closer to agreeing that Assad can stay.
Now in its fifth year, civil war in Syria has blown up into a regional conflict and created millions of refugees testing Europe’s border. The exodus finally convinced German Chancellor Angela Merkel to wade in and admit no solution is possible without Assad. In so doing, she publicly broke with what was once a prevailing Western position: Assad, step aside.
“We will have to talk with many actors,” Merkel said after a European Union summit in Brussels. “Assad will be part of that, but also others like the U.S. and Russia as well as important regional partners like Iran or Saudi Arabia.”
The shift comes as Russia is taking a more hands-on approach to Syria, a long-time ally, after using its veto power repeatedly on the UN Security Council to block anything that smacked of intervention by Western countries.
President Vladimir Putin sent troops as well as fighter jets, armored personnel carriers and attack helicopters to Syria and is coming to the UN ready to discuss with other power brokers about Assad’s future -- a previously taboo subject.
Thousands of desperate Syrians pouring into the European Union by land and sea have made the 28-nation bloc more willing to compromise and that strengthens Putin’s hand, according to a European diplomat in Moscow who isn’t authorized to discuss internal deliberations and asked not to be identified.
That leaves Obama. The U.S. administration may also be edging toward an easing of its aversion to a transitional role for Assad and is willing to work with Russia. Secretary of State John Kerry has spoken three times about Russia’s presence in Syria with his counterpart Sergei Lavrov and plans to meet him this weekend in New York.
More tellingly, Obama will hold a rare in-person meeting with Putin next week when both address the 193-nation body. Their previous encounters were notable for the tense body language and briefest exchanges of pleasantries.
But now the timing might be right. There is a potential for a deal on Syria between the U.S. and its allies and Russia and it’s good that Putin is going to New York to meet with Western leaders, a second European diplomat said.
Since the Russian search for influence depends on something of the Assad regime remaining, and a significant Russian presence as well as political and military Russian activity, “this probably gives a greater chance to some sort of settlement than whatever’s been done in the past,” said Richard Barrett, senior vice president of The Soufan Group, a U.S. security consultancy.
Even France and Turkey, which have been among the most strident that Assad must be removed from power, appear ready to make a compromise.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in Istanbul on Thursday, a day after meeting Putin in Russia, there could be a process “with Assad in the transition phase,” as long as the opposition is included and the Syrian president plays no role in the future of the country.
President Francois Hollande is leaning toward accepting a Russian proposal to set up a so-called coalition of good will that would also include Assad, said a French diplomat, who declined to be named.
It’s already accepted by all sides that Assad can stay on as a figurehead, the envoy explained, though the difficulty now is to reach an understanding on how the political transition will take shape.
A breakthrough between the two leaders at the UN offers the best chance of ending a war that has killed at least 250,000 people and turned Syria into a lawless stomping ground for terrorists. Iran and Russia have made the case that Assad must be part of a broad coalition to combat Islamic State fighters in Syria and neighboring Iraq.
What the Obama administration needs to decide is whether it can collaborate with Russia on transferring power from Assad to a successor from his minority Alawite sect in order to prevent a collapse of the regime and Islamist takeover.
“The regime is built around loyalty to a man. It’s not built around a concept,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “If you destroy the Assad top of the Alawite security system, the whole thing falls apart, and so, Russia and Iran cannot deliver on that part.”
For more, read this QuickTake: Syria’s Civil War