Faint Signs of a Settlement in the Making in Syria

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry walk next to each other before a bilateral meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on August 5. Kerry has been trying to bring about a rapprochement between Syria and regional states to forge an alliance to fight ISIS militants. Brendan Smialowski/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, site.

Marwan Darwish, one of the most prominent human rights activists in Syria, was released from prison this week after more than three years in detention.

Arrested in Damascus in 2012, Darwish was director of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression at the time, and his release follows that of two of his colleagues in July.

Welcome as they are, in themselves three prisoner releases do not denote a radical change of heart by the Bashar Assad government, particularly when thousands of political prisoners still languish in the country's jails.

Nevertheless, the releases came after a striking speech delivered by the president on Army Day last month. The tone of the speech was very different from others delivered on this occasion since the outbreak of the revolt in 2011.

Assad acknowledged that the army had evacuated many areas of the country and was struggling to maintain control over territory amid lack of manpower, saying, "Everything is available [for the army], but there is a shortfall in human capacity."

And for the first time, he admitted that Lebanon's Hezbollah was playing "an important and effective role." The president also noted "positive changes" in Western attitudes to the country, suggesting there was a common interest in defeating the jihadism of ISIS.

The prisoner releases and the tone of the speech have added significance because of the nuclear deal struck between Iran and six world powers (the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, China and Russia). That deal has opened the door to possible realignments in the Middle East, and Assad may now be testing the waters in that regard.

The most striking manifestation of this was the visit of Syria's foreign minister, Walid Moallem, to Oman on August 6. It was his first known visit to a Gulf country since 2011 and has particular significance in two respects. First, Oman hosted secret talks between the United States and Iran for more than two years in an attempt to revive the now successful nuclear talks. Secondly, Oman has not joined its fellow Gulf Cooperation Council members in the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen.

The visit to Oman was overshadowed by an even more remarkable development—the visit of General Ali Mamluk, head of Syria's National Security Bureau, to Saudi Arabia late last month. Reportedly, the trip was engineered by Russia, and the Syrian intelligence chief flew in a Russian jet for talks with Prince Mohammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia's deputy crown prince and defense minister.

Weeks before, in mid-June, Prince Salman had visited St. Petersburg, where he met with President Vladimir Putin. That meeting was a prelude to Mamluk's visit to the Saudi capital a month later.

These visits and meetings clearly indicate that Russia is playing a critical role in these developments and re-establishing itself as a key player in the Middle East. An early outcome of Russia's new assertiveness is the U.N. Security Council Resolution 2235 adopted on August 7 establishing a joint investigation by the U.N. and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to identify those behind the repeated use of chemical weapons.

It was a rare display of unanimity on Syria by the Security Council. The unusual Russia-U.S. cooperation was highlighted by the meeting and agreement on the text the previous day by Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

In the space of less than a month, an agreement has been reached between the two superpowers, the intelligence chiefs of Syria and Saudi Arabia have met, and Syria has sought the assistance of a key Arab country, Oman, which enjoys good relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia.

A political settlement of the Syrian conflict remains a long way off, but the first steps on that path may have been taken.

Michael Williams, Lord Michael Williams of Baglan, former U.N. envoy to the Middle East, is a distinguished visiting fellow at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs.