Syria: from red lines to white flags

US Secretary of State John Kerry has announced that he reached an agreement with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, to hold an international conference on the Syrian crisis in which delegates from the Syrian regime and the opposition would take part, to pave the way for achieving a political solution to the conflict.

Evidently, the US has offered the larger concession in its dialogue with Moscow, shifting its position to one of open support for the Russian plan to find a political solution.

By moving from their stated intention to provide the Syrian opposition with advanced weapons, to supporting a peace conference, the US is implicitly bestowing  legitimacy on the Assad regime.

Gone is the talk of the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons against its people, and US President Barack Obama has moved away from repeating his statement that the days of the Syrian regime are numbered.

Now, the Geneva plan is at the forefront of both Russian and US thinking – a plan which calls for the formation of a transitional government from those affiliated to the Syrian regime and the opposition.

Why has there been a sudden shift in the American position on Syria? How have diplomatic options now taken precedence over the military choices available to resolve the Syrian crisis?

The reason is simple – American anxieties over Israel. The US wants to ensure safe and stable borders and cannot afford Syria to turn into a base for al-Qaeda militants.

The American and Russian leaderships may have their differences over the feasibility of the continuation of Assad’s regime, but they share a common enemy –  jihadist Islam.

Jihadist groups have prevailed in Afghanistan, and Iraq. Israel has demonstrated military weaknesses of late, having failed to achieve victory in southern Lebanon in 2006, and in the Gaza Strip in 2008.

There are several reasons for the change in America's tone in relation to the Syrian crisis. They are as follows:

1) The Obama administration does not want a new war in the Middle East, especially in Syria, as such a war would cause further regional instability. The move would require the deployment of thousands of American troops to establish a no-fly zone or to seize chemical weapons.

2) The failure of the American and Arab efforts to find a secular leader to replace Assad’s regime. The Syrian coalition has no strong leadership since the resignation of Moaz al-Khatib; his successor Ghassan Hitto has not been accepted by the majority inside and outside Syria.

3) Emerging differences between the regional powers supporting the Syrian opposition. Such differences strongly appeared during the recent Friends of Syria Conference in Istanbul, polarizing Qatar and Turkey on one hand and Saudi Arabia and Emirates on the other.

4) The expansion of the jihadist groups on the Syrian territories. Such groups have managed to gain notable popularity due to their discipline and relentless approach, in addition to the services they provide to the citizens.

5) The image of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has been tainted because it adopted unacceptable practices. UN investigator Carla Del Ponte said that the opposition had turned to chemical weapons in Aleppo to damage the Syrian regime.

6) Israel's air raids, last weekend, inside Syria. These have escalated the whole crisis and threaten to internationalize the situation. The attacks embarrassed the Syrian regime and its supporters in Moscow and Tehran, and put them under pressure to retaliate.

The key question now is – what real prospects are there for a political solution based on the Geneva conference? Would the Syrian regime and the opposition even agree to participate in the conference? Who can legitimately claim to represent the Syrian opposition?

The Syrian National Coalition (SNC) has already issued a statement that it will not particpate without the pre-condition that Assad relinquishes power.

The SNC response handed the Syrian regime an excellent opportunity to accept the invitation while accusing the SNC of shunning talks.

Nevertheless, tt would be difficult for the Syrian regime to sit at the same table as an opposition that seeks to overthrow it.

Two men are likely to gain from the Russian-American peace move; the first is the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; the second, UN Envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi.

Assad's international legitimacy is somewhat restored by his regime's return to the international arena and America's recognition that it should participate in peace talks.

Brahimi, who had threatened to resign in frustration at the stalemate in Syria,  is likely now to remain in post for another six months, to play a key role at the conference.

Neither the US nor Russia want wars in Syria or Iran. They want to avoid such an approach, even though they would happily target Islamic jihadist groups in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.