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BEIRUT – The nuclear deal with Iran was widely expected to affect other Middle East issues, and that may already be happening with Syria: a series of recent diplomatic maneuvers suggest a growing willingness to at least engage with the Iranian-backed government of Bashar Assad on ways to end the country's civil war.
The embattled leader seems no more inclined to step aside now than he did four years ago, and any agreement still looks to be far off — but the search seems to be on for an elegant solution that might, for example, allow him a transitional role. In part, it is also driven by the new leadership team in Saudi Arabia, which emerged with the accession to the throne of King Salman in January.
Another factor is the emergence and spread of the violent and fanatical Islamic State group as the most potent opposition to Assad, far more so than the relatively moderate rebels who won a measure of world support after the conflict began four years ago. Despite his government's brutality and aerial bombardment that has leveled some opposition-held areas, the 50-year-old former eye doctor now seems, at least to some, comparatively more palatable.
The civil war has killed at least 250,000, displaced half the population, flooded brittle neighboring countries with refugees and has left jihadis occupying not only much of Syria but also perhaps a third of Iraq.
Among the developments of recent days:
— In the wake of mediation by Assad's Russian patrons, a quiet, ice-breaking meeting took place in Riyadh in late July between Brig. Gen. Ali Mamlouk, the head of Syria's powerful National Security Bureau, and Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia's deputy crown prince and defense minister. That represented a significant shift and an opening of channels between two countries that have become arch foes in Syria's conflict. Saudi Arabia along with other Gulf states has been a key backer of rebels fighting to topple Assad.
— Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem flew Thursday to Oman after a two-day visit to Tehran, amid unconfirmed reports in pro-Assad media outlets that the Omani government was trying to broker a meeting of the foreign ministers of Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
— Iran has said it is preparing to submit a four-point peace plan proposal for Syria to the United Nations. According to some reports, it includes a "national unity government." That is code for allowing Assad a face-saving period in which he shares power — and elections under international supervision. But it would also bring some prominence to the otherwise marginalized relative moderates who have failed to dislodge Assad militarily.
Although few will say so in public, there is an increasing, if grudging, acceptance that such a compromise may in the end be essential.
Assad's enormous territorial losses may be pushing him to explore diplomatic options to resolve the crisis. But he is unlikely to fully step aside, and if anything, he may be more inclined to cling to power in the hope that an Iran freed of economic sanctions would support him all the more with funds for his battered army.
Dubai-based geopolitical analyst Theodore Karasik said the Iran nuclear deal, which was struck last month between Tehran and six world powers, has "opened the door to realignments and fixing geopolitical problems."
"It seems to me that all regional and international players are rushing around trying to establish a new order in the wake of the Iran deal, and it's going to continue," he said. "We're seeing a huge uptick in shuttle diplomacy by all sides."
This week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir held a rare three-way meeting Monday in the Qatari capital, Doha. The session included discussions about the Syrian crisis.
Lavrov also met Mouaz al-Khatib, a former president of the Syrian National Coalition opposition group whose name is often mentioned as a possible transitional figure, during his Qatar trip.
Russia, a key backer of Assad's government, is seeking to assemble an anti-terror front that would include the Syrian army, the Iraqi army and the Kurds, Lavrov said this week.
Russia in particular seems to be acting as a negotiator on the Syrian question and wants to be a partner in the fight against IS, Karasik said. It also sees itself as the main player brokering new relations between the Arabs and Tehran, he said.
"In the wake of the Iran deal, there are new opportunities to settle regional differences, and Russia is trying to fulfil what it sees is its historical mission to bring all sides together," he said.
Moscow also has a longstanding relationship with Iran.
The shape of any political settlement in Syria remains unclear.
The U.S. would find it extremely awkward to formally back any plan that would legitimize the Syrian government. Kerry reiterated Washington's position in Doha, saying that "Assad and the Assad regime long ago lost legitimacy," even as he again called for a political solution to the crisis.
Iran is unlikely to drop its support for Assad even if its nuclear deal presents the prospect of a diplomatic opening with the West. Kerry said in Doha that while he hopes there can be "a turning of the page" with Iran on various regional issues, so far a diplomatic option hasn't presented itself on Syria.
Assad still has a firm grip on core areas key to his survival, even though he has lost perhaps more than half the country to hundreds of rebel groups and Islamic extremists. In a speech last month — his first public address in a year — he acknowledged his troops had lost territory and were running short on manpower, but he vowed to win the war, making clear he would fight to the end.
"Despite the military defeats, politically the Syrian regime has become more viable because of the lack of alternative," said Ayham Kamel, director of Middle East and North Africa with the Eurasia group in London.
Furthermore, he said the Gulf states no longer have the same priorities they did at the start of the Syria conflict. The war in Yemen and the IS threat have taken precedence, he said.
Simon Henderson, director of the Gulf and energy policy program at The Washington Institute, said the current Saudi leadership is still opposed to any scenario that gives Iran a strategic victory in Syria by leaving Assad or another strongman of his Alawite sect in power.
But he said the new leadership in Saudi Arabia since the death of King Abdullah is shaking up old assumptions. Mohammed bin Salman, the powerful deputy crown prince, is "prepared to go outside the fences that were previously erected," Henderson said.
Schreck reported from Doha and Dubai.
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