There can be "no military solution to the conflict in Syria". This is the agreement US president Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, arrived at on Saturday. On the face of it, their joint statement on the civil war in Syria, now in its seventh year, seems like a welcome acknowledgement of the futility of using military means to bring to an end a conflict saturated with myriad fighting forces. At the same time, however, what looks like consensus between Washington, which has backed forces ranged against the government of Bashar Al Assad, and Moscow, which along with Iran is Mr Al Assad's most strident defender, papers over differences that, if not addressed, will eventually threaten any peace that may emerge in the future.
Mr Al Assad traffics in deception. He has profited by promoting the myth that the choice in Syria is binary: between himself and ISIL. He figured that the world, dreading ISIL, would reluctantly settle for him. That, more or less, is what is happening. This development is at the expense of the genuinely progressive forces that are stacked against Mr Al Assad and that, in the absence of meaningful international support, faces the threat of extinction.
For a political solution to emerge in Syria, there has to be engagement between the parties. Yet Mr Al Assad refuses to talk to the opposition groups – a major reason why the last round of informal talks, held in Astana in July, failed to yield results, and why the next round of more formal talks, set to take place on November 28, may also fail. As these pages have frequently observed, as the Syrian government has consolidated its position over the war-ravaged country, it has become more, not less, violent.
Syrians who have suffered under Mr Al Assad will find little comfort in the claim contained in the joint US-Russia statement that the Syrian president is committed to "constitutional reform and elections" in accordance with United Nations' resolutions. Mr Al Assad's ambition is not to reform the government to make it fit for Syrians. It is, rather, to make Syria conform to his dictatorial rule. ISIL is more or less finished in Syria and Iraq. A quest for a political settlement going forward would result in failure and generate another conflict if it did not recognise the primary cause of strife in Syria: the current regime. It is imperative, therefore, to ensure that Mr Al Assad is not permitted to regard the push for dialogue as a cover for his continued rule. The UN has catalogued the crimes committed by Damascus against its own people. These must not be allowed to fall by the wayside. Peace achieved by sidestepping justice cannot last.
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