U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is meeting this week with leaders from several Middle Eastern countries and Russia about how to revive the political process in war-torn Syria.
That diplomatic effort that has been attempted before, and each time it has failed to halt the conflict that has left hundreds of thousands of Syrians dead and created the worst refugee crisis since World War II.
This time the diplomatic push comes at a potentially critical moment, with Russia intensifying military and diplomatic support for its longtime ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Russian warplanes have been bombing the rebels trying to overthrow Assad, and weeks of those air raids have helped the Syrian military retake some territory.
Assad made his first known trip outside Syria this week since the unrest began in 2011, traveling to Moscow for a meeting at the Kremlin with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
To take a closer look at the situation in Syria, VOA spoke with a number of experts on the region, including some who are hopeful that the possibility of resuming efforts for a negotiated settlement in Syria have now increased.
Here are excerpts of those interviews:
Nabeel Khoury is a visiting associate professor at the Middle East and North African Studies program of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
Question: Did Assad's meeting with Putin embolden the Syrian leader? How much does this Russian military support change the calculation on the ground?
Answer: The Syrian army is regaining territory lost earlier to opposition forces, and Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah have stepped up their support on the ground. So clearly, in the last few weeks, Assad has felt good about what's happening on the ground. I think this visit is not so much to further embolden him as it is to showcase that Russia has the upper hand in terms of determining how things are going in Syria - and perhaps broader than that, in the region.
Q: Is this increased Russian intervention a hopeful sign, or is this a failure of U.S. foreign policy?
A: You could view it both ways. It is a failure of U.S. policy because for the past four, almost five, years, the initiative was there for the U.S. to take. And the passive initiatives that this administration has taken has fallen far short of accomplishing anything on the ground or politically. The Russians stepped in and already, militarily, are already making a difference.
And this was the goal of Russia's military intervention: not so much to just conduct some token strikes against people they don't like, but actually to reverse the strategic situation on the ground. It was a very purposeful military intervention, and it clearly has made a difference. Now comes the time for some kind of political move, and clearly the videos that came out of the [Putin-Assad] meeting showed essentially Putin lecturing Assad and telling him that with the military achievements now going on, the time for a political settlement is approaching.
David W. Lesch is Professor of Middle East History in the Department of History at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.
Q: How significant was the meeting in Moscow between President Assad and President Putin?
A: For Putin, it again puts him again at diplomatic center stage. He's painted this picture that all roads lead to Russia. Look at who he's received in Russia over the last month and a half or so: leaders or leading officials from Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iran. And he's long met with elements of the Syrian opposition. And now Assad. The image he gives is that only he can meet with all of the stakeholders in the conflict, from all sides of the conflict, and that only he can generate an end to the conflict.
And for Assad, of course we know he's been an international pariah, he's been delegitimized as a ruler by most. But now, he's met quite possibly at the current time with the most popular and influential leader in the world. And just by osmosis, he's gained some legitimacy. And he presents this image of being statesman-like, in control, that he's on the uptick, that he's breaking out of his isolation.
Q: How about the Syrian opposition. Where does this leave them?
A: The Russian military strikes have degraded the non-ISIS opposition. And frankly, I think that Putin and Russia have engaged in this because they've made the conclusion that a political solution or a negotiated settlement is out of the question; it just isn't going to happen. They tried, and therefore let's try a different tactic. And this one is to degrade the non-ISIS position to a point where all that's left in the short or near term, if Putin achieves his objectives, is Assad and ISIS. And he's betting that most of the world in that sort of situation will side with the lesser of evils, and side with Assad.
Q: Will that strategy work?
A: I think he's underestimating the fighting ability of the non-ISIS opposition in Syria. And also I think he's probably reinvigorated some of the Sunni Arab conservative monarchies in the Persian Gulf in particular - individuals and governments - to increase their support for Sunni elements in Syria to fight against Assad. So I think that Putin may have underestimated that. But if he's successful, he will have achieved some immediate medium-term objectives at a fairly low cost.
Michael Kerr is the Director of the Institute of Middle Eastern Studies and the Center for the Study of Divided Societies at King's College London.
Q: What are the chances Kerry's meetings will result in anything more substantial than did the other meetings he's had on this over the years?
A: The challenge for the U.S. and the European Union and other parties is to come up with a policy that provides consistent and robust support politically for whatever moderate opposition groups that come to the fore in any new political initiative. And that's been sorely lacking. I'm not sure that's going to happen. Because U.S. policy on Syria has been premised around not engaging, at least in the sense that Russia has.
Q: What are some of the possible ways in which the Syrian conflict could be resolved?
A: There are a number of different options. One option is a military victory; that seems extremely unlikely. Another option is partition; that seems very unlikely now that Russia has backed Assad. Another would be some sort of decentralization. And another would be some form of power-sharing.
Now I would not be surprised at all, given the comments that have come from Moscow over the last 48 hours, if Putin has said to Assad that the price that you must pay for your regime to survive and for you personally to survive is some form of power-sharing with some of the opposition forces. And Assad has probably accepted that, because not negotiating is not going to be an option for him. His future is now going to be determined to a great extent by Moscow.
Q: So you think there is a good chance that this increased Russian backing of Assad will actually result in movement towards a political resolution?
A: No, I wouldn't say there is a good chance. But the cards on the table have been reshuffled and redealt.
There's not an international alignment or agreement over Syria. We're far, far from that. But there is an opportunity for the West to pressure Russia diplomatically in the coming months through the U.N. The difficulty will be for the West, and the West will need to compromise with Russia in order to achieve this, is to come up with a policy with the Russians and a political policy that matches their military requirements on the ground. And a key to that might be defeating ISIS.
But an international scenario for Syria, where Russia and the U.S. agree and all the regional players of significance are kept within the tent - that will be very, very hard to come by. But Moscow is taking the lead on this. The road to Damascus is running at the moment through Moscow, not Washington.
Q: What is the best hope for a resolution to the Syrian conflict, at this point?
A: Probably it will be everybody's least favorite option in Syria, but some form of a power-sharing arrangement is quite likely. Whether that takes place on a confessional or sectarian basis or on an opposition, regional basis, I don't know. But I think that idea might lead to cease-fires and lead to negotiations and lead to a coalition of forces that are willing to challenge and isolate ISIS. Because it's fundamentally important that Syria is maintained as within the boundaries of the state that presently exists but have been challenged by ISIS. If Syria breaks up, then there's going to be a rump Islamic entity that transcends Syria's present borders, and none of the parties to the conflict want to see that happen.
Ammar Abdulhamid is a Syrian pro-democracy activist, author, currently based in Silver Spring, Maryland. He is the founder of the Tharwa Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to democracy promotion, peace-building and post-conflict reconstruction.
Q: Do you think Kerry's meetings hold any prospect for being successful? Haven't we been here before? Is a political solution still possible?
A: It is very difficult to expect much from this particular round. Mr. Kerry had earlier noted that the administration might be willing to live with having Assad be part of an interim arrangement, thus abandoning another red line earlier adopted by the administration regarding the conflict in Syria. But even this concession may not be enough at this stage. Putin seems to be interested in a larger deal, one that legitimates his involvement in Syria, which seems to be a longer-term project than previously thought. Putin might also be interested in linking developments in Syria with those in eastern Ukraine.
Q: How would you describe the Obama administration's Syria strategy so far? What would you change to make it more effective?
A: If there was any strategy, it seems focused on limiting any potential involvement in Syria, and everywhere else, because the Obama administration deemed interventionism itself as the problem, even if to pre-empt violence, as would have been the case in the early months of the Syrian Revolution, and even if for humanitarian reasons, as is the case now.
There are a variety of steps that can be described in order to build a strategy that is actually focused on ending the suffering of the Syrian people. The first is: get a new president, one not blinded by his own ideological imperatives. Once we have that, we can discuss the other steps. For now, the trick is to keep enough Syrians in Syria and enough habitable Syria until a new president assumes office.
Q: How does Russia's campaign of airstrikes and increased political backing of Assad change the calculus for a political resolution?
A: Even before its campaign, there was enough Russian support for Assad, and enough dithering by the Obama administration, to make Russia a necessary partner in any serious political process in Syria. With this campaign - and what seems to be a desire to build an even larger military and economic presence along the coastal areas, and perhaps Damascus and Aleppo - a kind of Russo-Iranian mandate seems to be emerging over the Western parts of Syria, one that the Russians and Iranians want the U.S., Turkey and Saudi Arabia to accept.
The opposition might have to live with something along these lines, but so long as the Russians and Iranians insist on having Assad stay as president, no matter how much you limit his authority, it might be impossible to get such a deal, and the proxy war in Syria will continue. One way or another, Assad has to be to eased out, or unceremoniously disposed of. His departure may not usher in democracy, but it would least the mark the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. Syrians need that in order to make sense of all what had transpired earlier.
Q: What are the chances that the Syria conflict escalates as a proxy war between the US and Russia?
A: There is a good chance of that, as an administration pressured to be tough but without having to intervene practically has no other option.
VOA's Victor Beattie contributed reporting for this story..