Apparently sensing that the end game may be approaching in Syria, UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi went to Dublin to host a hastily arranged meeting between US Secretary of State Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov. 

Emerging from the meeting with a statement pre-approved by Clinton and Lavrov, Brahimi told the assembled press, “We haven’t taken any sensational decisions.”  His modesty seems justified.

None of the parties to the Dublin meeting was blind to events in Syria.  The swing of momentum in ground combat effectiveness from the Assad regime to the hydra-headed armed opposition has caught even the attention of Moscow.  In recent days Russian officials have insisted quite vigorously that Bashar al-Assad is not their special friend and that Assad’s political survival is of little import to Moscow.  While the disclaimers are not new, their volume suggests that Russian leaders see the regime’s flirtation with dirty weapons usage as a sign of desperation and a source of mortifying embarrassment.  Clinton recently declared, “The regime is under severe pressure, including in Damascus.”  And the recently announced departure of United Nations staff from Syria surely was not lost on the UN’s special envoy.

Given the situation on the ground Brahimi sensed opportunity.  When he took over from Kofi Annan this summer, the veteran Algerian diplomat searched high and low for diplomatic methodologies and initiatives different from those employed by his predecessor.  It was not disrespect for the former secretary-general that prompted the search; far from it.  Rather Brahimi felt obliged to see if perhaps there might have been something Annan had not tried.  In the end, however, he came full circle.  In his statement to the press yesterday Brahimi said that the trio “also talked a little bit about how we can work out hopefully a process that will get Syria back from the brink.  To put together a peace process that will be based on Geneva.” [Emphasis added.]

What Brahimi was referring to was the “Action Group for Syria” final communiqué, issued on June 30.  Annan had convened, in Geneva, foreign ministers representing the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Turkey, the European Union, and three Arab states (Kuwait, Iraq ,and Qatar) having key responsibilities on Syria-related matters in the Arab League.  Annan, with decisive support from Clinton, was able to get all present (including Russia and China) to agree to a formula for peaceful political transition in Syria away from the regime to a “genuinely democratic and pluralistic state,” as good a definition of “regime change” as one could devise in the Syrian context.

In order to get Russian and Chinese buy-in to the transition language and the description of the process that would strip Assad of power, Annan and the other conferees had to agree that the by-name resignation and departure of the Syrian president would not be a pre-condition for the transition negotiating process itself to start.  Negotiating teams representing the Assad regime and the opposition would convene to create, on the basis of mutual consent (precisely to keep Assad and his enforcers out of Syria’s future government) a “transitional governing body” that would receive “full executive powers.”  Had this formula been implemented Assad and his regime denizens no doubt would have departed Syria rather than ceding power and awaiting the results of post-Assad Syrian justice.

For a variety of reasons—Assad’s understandable hostility to the proposed process, his refusal to implement any of Kofi Annan’s ceasefire steps, Russian reluctance to press Assad to accept the Action Group’s verdict, and a battle royal in the Security Council over a draft resolution that would be vetoed by Russia and China—Annan’s handiwork went onto the shelf.  Within weeks he would leave in great frustration.

It is understandable that Brahimi would want to go back to the Geneva formula.  Yet things have changed since June of this year.  While no one in the opposition would have wanted back then to enter into a negotiating process with Assad still clinging to office, it is possible they would have done so if Assad had complied with Annan by pulling his forces back, releasing all political prisoners, permitting peaceful demonstrations, and giving the news media free run of the country.  Now, however, Asad and company simply must step aside in order for a transition negotiating process to start and succeed.  Instead of going for “dialogue” or “negotiations” between Syrian parties that despise one another, Brahimi may well seek Russian-American agreement on a transitional governing body (or at least a modified process for creating it), one that then would be endorsed by the UN Security Council. 

So Brahimi will try his best to cobble together a process based on Geneva.  No doubt American and Russian diplomats will meet to hash over the possibilities.  No doubt Brahimi will consult with other participants in the Action Group proceedings and also, as he put it yesterday, “all the countries as I’ve said with interest or influence in Syria.”  This probably portends a visit to Iran: certainly a country with “interest or influence,” but surely one very much at the root of the problem as well.  For the Supreme Leader it matters not how many Syrians die at the hands of his junior partner in Damascus.  It is maintaining Syria as Iran’s bridge to Hezbollah in Lebanon that matters to him: an objective unattainable without Assad.

It is likely that the political and perhaps physical fate of Bashar al-Assad will be determined by fighting on the ground.  Yet if Brahimi can pull off regime change through talks, more power to him.  As Clinton noted, the manner of Assad’s departure matters.  If it is done in a “managed way” it will matter “to Syrians who have suffered enough and for too long, and to the region.”  For a “managed way” to have the remotest of chances Russia will have to tell Assad he is finished, and that Moscow will work vigorously for his removal.  Apparently Moscow finds encouragement in reports that the United States will designate the criminally reprehensible Jebhat al-Nusra organization as a terrorist organization, as if Washington ever supported the return to Syria of murderers whose passage to Iraq had been expedited before 2011 by the Asad regime.  What is important now, however, is that Moscow and Washington cooperate closely to give 23 million Syrians the break they deserve.

Nothing “sensational” emerged from Dublin. Yet if, in the coming days and weeks, Assad can be persuaded diplomatically to step down and get out, “sensational” will be applied retroactively to the Brahimi-Lavrov-Clinton meeting. The odds are long, but the effort fully justified. Assad to date has not chosen wisely. He owes it to himself and his family to choose wisely now before it is too late.

Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council and the former Special Envoy for Transition in Syria at the Department of State.