Last week, the United Nations special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, sent a letter to participants in the Geneva talks. He asked them to answer questions about Syria’s future, including whether, under a new governance structure, the borders between areas controlled by different groups would be administrative or political.
Representatives of the Syrian regime were displeased. Mr de Mistura had broached the issue of a transition in Syria. His questions about the eventual make-up of the country also suggested he was examining scenarios that Syrian officials, who have spoken of recapturing the whole country, refuse to address publicly.
The Syrian regime’s problem is that the behaviour of a principal ally, Russia, has made such questions inevitable. Much speculation has surrounded the Russian military withdrawal from Syria. While Moscow will not abandon Bashar Al Assad, it has created a reality that makes his preferred endgame improbable.
By pulling out when ceasefire lines were in place that could harden into the boundaries of a partitioned Syria, the Russians placed Mr Al Assad in a dilemma. If the president wants to reconstitute Syria, even under a federal system, the only way is to embrace a political process to lead to his exit. Otherwise, none of the entities under opposition control will ever rejoin with regime areas. At the same time, Mr Al Assad doesn’t have the military means to regain lost territory, nor, evidently, do the Russians have any intention of supporting such a campaign.
Mr Al Assad’s negotiators cannot forever ignore Mr de Mistura’s questions. If they remain stuck in their rejectionism, the entities controlled by their enemies will strengthen themselves free from Al Assad rule and partition will become more likely.
It is ironic that Russia, though a supporter of Mr Al Assad, took a major step in undermining his regime’s narrative by supporting a federal structure in Syria. This was directed at the country’s Kurds, but its implications went far beyond them.
Moscow, like an increasing number of western governments, including that of the United States, appears to believe that the only way to end the fighting in Syria is by freezing the situation in place and allowing the existing entities themselves to negotiate their relationships. It is apparently to create a framework for this that Mr de Mistura put questions to the two sides in Geneva.
Unsurprisingly, moderate Syrian rebels, observing the situation, are claiming that they are making headway in their areas of control against jihadi groups such as ISIL and Jabhat Al Nusra. They are asking for more assistance, but their deeper message is that they are seeking to define territory from which jihadi groups will be excluded in anticipation of a final settlement in Syria.
The activities of the moderate rebel groups are directed as much against western plans for the country as Mr Al Assad’s regime. If there is one thing that unites the regime and the opposition it is their refusal to see Syria partitioned. Both sides want to control the whole thing. What the Americans and Russians are telling them is that only talks can lead to such an outcome.
The situation in Syria is reminiscent of that in Lebanon in 1978. At the time, the different factions began reinforcing their sectarian zones in earnest. The Syrian army had been made to withdraw from mainly Christian areas, while many Christians had left areas controlled by non-Christian militias.
To many people this represented nascent partition. Ultimately, Lebanon reconstituted itself as a unified state, largely due to the fact that the Syrian army imposed unity under a canopy of Syrian hegemony after 1990. Yet Damascus also systematically undermined the Lebanese state and its institutions, leading to many of the sectarian rifts we are witnessing today in the country.
But Lebanon did also demonstrate that separation does not necessarily lead to partition. The Russian position until now has been somewhat similar: a federal system is not partition, and therefore a looser governing structure may be necessary to keep Syria as one, providing all parties can come to an agreement.
The thing is that a federal structure usually comes about when separate entities see an interest in joining together. In other words it comes through the voluntary agency of its disparate parts, not through a devolution of power from the centre. Such a mechanism makes it unlikely that the entities in Syria will reassemble unless there is prior agreement over a central government.
Iraq showed the shortcomings of a federal structure where power was given up by the central government. The new system was not based on a broad national consensus, and it shows. The Kurds are pining for independence, while the Sunni community has seen the post-2003 state as being principally directed against them.
Mr Al Assad wants to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. That’s a pipe dream, particularly if he insists on staying in place. Either the regime accepts a transition away from Mr Al Assad or it reinforces the dynamics of partition. There is no middle ground.
Michael Young is a writer and editor in Beirut
On Twitter @BeirutCalling