The Syrian war is clearly un-winnable. With the Aleppo ceasefire, it is possible the US and Russia are waking up to this fact.
Not for the first time, Syria finds itself at a crossroads facing more years of war and devastation, or, if all goes well, the gradual beginnings of a peaceful political process.
This time the stakes are at their highest, after more than half the population have been displaced. It is hard to imagine things getting worse, but the prospect of escalation is real. History has shown us many instances in the past of countries that suffered worse infernos of violence, so there is no room for complacency.
Meanwhile the Salafi jihadists of Jabhat al Nusra (al Qaeda's affiliate, or JN) and ISIS, both hell-bent on committing genocide and killing en mass, are showing greater regional and international strength, bolstered by the jihadist university par excellence that much of Syria has become. These groups now threaten Turkey and EU countries, as well as Russia.
While the world's attention is focused on ISIS, JN is thriving. Embedded among an array of opposition groups, it has been hard for the US to target. Meanwhile, as Russia bombs America's enfeebled Sunni allies in Syria, JN have positioned themselves as the big brother of the opposition. Even if the West's bright hope, the Kurdish YPG, make more gains against ISIS, they could find themselves in battle with an array of Sunni groups, which could benefit JN.
Ironically, Turkey's moves to support various rebel groups against both Assad and ISIS, have only poured more fuel on the war with Kurdish separatists.
If Turkey suffers destabilization from the growing strength of Syrian Kurds, as well as further ISIS attacks, trade with Russia and the West will suffer. To the south, close regional ally of both Russia and the US (Jordan) also faces risk of major destabilization. The terrible irony of all of this is that every bad development in Syria has come about through a foreign power thinking it can win.
So, the US and the Gulf States supplied sophisticated anti-tank weapons to "vetted" rebel groups. But the Gulf States poured more funds to radicals, including JN. As a result, they became stronger than the little-supported US allies, who later lost control of their new anti-tank missiles to the radicals. Concomitantly, Assad lost a vast number of tanks and the rebels seemed to be gaining the upper hand last year. Of course, ISIS took advantage of this, seizing Palmyra. So, the West's strategy unintentionally helped ISIS. Enter Russia.
Russia's intervention has achieved some impressive military gains, in part through plastering huge areas with high explosive. But such actions risks creating a more fanatical brand among the opposition, and can only achieve so much without more Russian commitment. Meanwhile it has strengthened Assad's ambition, and he now wants the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) to retake all of Syria. But this is very unlikely unless Russia and Iran keep writing blank cheques for Assad's regime, as well as sending in more Special Forces. That could simply provoke another escalation from Turkey.
At first, Russian intervention focused on non-ISIS groups, which was another factor in ISIS gains last year. So, Russia also unintentionally helped ISIS. Now Russia and the Coalition are largely focused on ISIS, who are taking a massive hit, but Jabhat al Nusra seem resilient. At every turn, Salafi jihadists seem to win.
Worryingly, without large numbers of new Syrian army recruits, another insurgency will likely take hold. Which takes us back to that "escalation" problem: Saudi Arabia have already discussed sending anti-aircraft missiles to rebel groups close to Al Qaeda. If these are smuggled out of Syria into Turkey (hardly a far fetched given how porous the border is) the threat to airliners is disturbing.
From the perspective of NATO countries, support for rebel groups is an unpredictable game because of how fragmented the insurgency is and the crossover between an array of different groups such as Ahrar al Sham, Jaish al Islam and Jabhat al Nusra.
Problematically, when Russia and Assad pile bombs on all opposition groups, the appeal of Salafi jihadists becomes stronger because they can field hundreds of suicide bombers, something "moderate" groups cannot do.
But the opposition has dissolved into chaos. This year has seen violence between Jaish al Islam, the Rahman Brigade and Jabhat al Nusra in Ghouta, as well as much infighting in Idlib.
Despite so much factional fighting, the CIA hopes that a handful of small groups can form a lethal army to support Western interests. But since the US train and equip program has struggled to attract enough vetted recruits, this seems highly unlikely.
The US now focuses support on Kurdish groups, who have made impressive gains against ISIS. But this has alarmed Turkey, who are worried about the extent these groups can advance, and appears to have seriously re-ignited Turkish-Kurdish violence. That has the potential to turn into a major PKK (Kurdish separatist) insurgency, undermining Kurdish progress against ISIS. Thus, ISIS still have some cards to play as chaos mounts.
Finally, there is the position of the Syrian government. Assad has recently declared a desire to take over Aleppo in a crushing defeat for the rebels. It seems Russia is not too keen on this, so has backed the ceasefire in the area, possibly fearing yet another escalation, this time from Turkey. There are well over 20,000 rebels defending Aleppo and Russia may be realising that there are limits to what it can do for Assad's armed forces.
Perhaps with the new announcement of the "regime of calm" areas, John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov have finally woken up to the un-winnable nature of this war. But local ceasefires are only a beginning. If Assad feels let down by Russia, he will call on more Iranian support, while if US backed rebels feel let down by the West, they will go knocking on the doors of Turkish or Gulf State backers. This is where Russia and America must use their massive leverage to influence their allies.
Step one would be a display of Russia-US unity, bringing allies together for a major humanitarian operation in the ceasefire areas. This could undermine groups such as Jabhat al Nusra and Ahrar al Sham, who promise their own "regimes of calm" by presenting themselves as an alternative government. From these safe havens, Syrian government forces can hold lines of defence in place and shift resources to the destruction of ISIS.
Outside of Syria, Jordan could become the venue for US- Russia coordination. From Amman, the two superpowers could coordinate aid and the war on ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra.
The first step for such an effort, beyond local ceasefires, is for Russia and the US to publicly get tough with their allies. This means the US should refrain from warning Assad and instead pressure allied opposition groups. Russians should publicly pressure Assad, instead of warning the opposition.
"Carrots and sticks" could be used by both great powers. For example, the US can continue to support groups with non-military aid such as the Jaysh al Mujahideen, who have been engaged in indirect talks with representatives of the Syrian government. With the promise of Russian non-military aid, these groups could be gradually peeled away from the bullies of Jabhat al Nusra. Of course, some of the Western backed groups are Islamist, but these don't come close to the ideological fanaticism of Al Qaeda or ISIS, and are potential candidates for the peace process. In fact, recent events suggest many of these groups would be happy to see the end of JN as much as the fall of ISIS.
Meanwhile, Syrian Arab Army and their allies should be permitted to continue fighting Salafi jihadists groups. But even as Salafi jihadists are isolated from the opposition and attacked, political change has to be underway.
Syria's 1973 constitution needs to be dramatically changed to allow for free and fair, elections, as well as referendums on the governance status of Syrian provinces. Devolution may be the key word here, as recent reports suggest both government negotiators and opposition groups are not happy about the word "federalism."
What then for Assad? Clearly he doesn't want to leave power any time soon. But there are mounting rumors and reports that Russia wants him to consider a graceful exit. His replacement in fact, might not need to be Alawite, since there are plenty of Sunni industrialists and regime officials in Syria. Therefore, the fear that Syria's next transition would be one based on sectarian identity may be overplayed. Whatever the case, it is high time this war ended, one way or another.