There can be no doubt that a binding and lasting peace in Syria is in the interests of not just the Syrian people, but of this region and the whole world. Equally, there can be no doubt that achieving this outcome in a very complex environment will be extremely difficult and will involve compromises. One thing is for sure: for any deal to take hold at the Geneva talks, which reconvened this week, there must be agreement between the Syrian opposition and the regime of president Bashar Al Assad. As of now, the major sticking point has been the intractable insistence by regime negotiators that Mr Al Assad remain in office throughout any transition. The opposition insists that he must go.
The crimes of Mr Al Assad are too many to list in full. By cracking down on protests by people seeking relatively minor reforms, he has escalated the unrest in his country into a full-blown civil war. He has the blood of hundreds of thousands of Syrians on his hands and his actions have been largely responsible for the displacement of many, many more, creating a refugee crisis the size of which the world has not seen for 70 years.
But Mr Al Assad has been lucky. He was let off the hook early in the five-year conflict when United States president Barack Obama wavered over his “red line” on the regime’s use of chemical weapons. In recent times, the regime has enjoyed the support of Russia, whose air force joined the war ostensibly to attack ISIL targets but with the effect of maintaining the status quo in Damascus. Without the support of Russia, along with that of Hizbollah and other agents of Iran, Mr Al Assad would already be gone or be in a greatly reduced position.
Unpalatable as it may be to see Mr Al Assad continue in office, it is increasingly a secondary issue to the business of turning the current ceasefire into a permanent peace, establishing some form of normality in Syria, rebuilding homes and lives and defeating ISIL. Having come so far, it would be wrong for the opposition to walk away now. The Syrian people, and all those affected by the war and the refugee crisis, deserve better.