By Samia Nakhoul
BEIRUT (Reuters) - More than two and a half years into the civil war devastating Syria, the United States and Russia are pushing the combatants to the negotiating table in Geneva, but on terms that mark a shift in favor of Bashar al-Assad against the increasingly fragmented rebels seeking to oust him.
Since the August 21 nerve gas attacks on rebel suburbs ringing Damascus, which brought the U.S. to the brink of a missile assault on Assad's forces, the diplomatic tide has turned against the opposition, which briefly believed external intervention would enable its forces to launch a final offensive.
Instead, the combination of hesitation by President Barack Obama's administration and an 11th hour deal brokered by Russia, a key Assad ally, to decommission Syria's chemical arsenal, has wrong-footed the rebels, now under intense U.S. and European pressure to attend talks in Geneva with a vague agenda.
Syrian opposition advisers and independent analysts fear this could channel the Syrian conflict - like other intractable regional problems such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - into a lengthy and fruitless process.
The only diplomatic landmark in this conflict, last June's U.N.-brokered statement known as Geneva I, was vague enough.
It called for a transitional government in a way that many assumed precluded any role for the Assad family, which has ruled Syria with an iron fist since President Assad's late father, Hafez, seized absolute power in 1970.
There has been barely a flicker of agreement within Syria about its future since the country erupted in initially peaceful protests in March 2011.
A source close to the internationally recognized political opposition, the National Coalition, says it fears the U.S.-Russia deal to dismantle Syria's chemical arsenal has restored the Assad administration's legitimacy, even as it uses tactics such as the starvation of rebel areas to try to regain control.
TOPPLING ASSAD NOT A PRIORITY
Regional analysts and diplomats closely involved also agree that Western concerns have moved on from toppling Assad to how to stop jihadist groups linked to al Qaeda gaining further traction in a conflict where mainstream rebel groups with limited Western backing are losing ground.
The U.S. position is that "the opposition must negotiate with the regime and agree on a roadmap", said Fawaz Gerges, Middle East expert at the London School of Economics.
"The Americans and the Europeans want to lock Assad into Geneva; it is a process without peace."
The opposition source, who did not want to be identified, said the West was switching "from an Arab Spring narrative to a counter-terrorism narrative" and bullying the opposition to attend Geneva II or lose its support.
For the West, Syria has now become "a source of terrorist recruits that will come back to Europe and America", he said. "But that doesn't answer the fundamental problem of how to stop it; that terrorism will get worse and the longer the war goes on, the more fragmented and radicalized the opposition becomes."
"The regime's military advances will continue. It is difficult to imagine that Assad's position will be weaker in six months. This is not a dead man walking," said Ayham Kamel, a Syria expert at the Eurasia consultancy group.
"Al Qaeda is here to stay. This is a new reality. It is hard to imagine how the threat will disappear in the future."
Even Saudi Arabia, the opposition's biggest supporter, is in two minds.
Diplomats and officials in the kingdom say it regards the Syrian war as battle for regional power with Iran and its Arab Shi'ite Muslim allies such as Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese paramilitary movement that this summer threw its weight behind Assad.
The Saudis have been unusually strident and public in criticizing the United Nations and the United States since the Syrian chemical weapons deal appeared to be leading to a rapprochement with Iran, despite the failure to reach a breakthrough on Tehran's nuclear program in high-level talks in Geneva last weekend.
Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi spy chief, went as far as to declare a "major shift" away from Washington.
But diplomats in the Gulf say his cousin Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the influential interior minister, is much more concerned about al Qaeda, and the terrorist "blowback" implications of supporting the rebels, than the fate of Assad.
With friends like this in such policy ambiguity, the Syrian opposition may well wonder what its real options are.
"The international consensus in support of the opposition and militarization of the conflict is no longer there," said Kamel of Eurasia. "There is no longer a belief that a military victory for the opposition is possible."
Diplomatic sources say there is a recognition by Russia and the West of Assad's ability to remain, even if Syria has already been carved up into enclaves - Sunni rebels in the north and east, secessionist Kurds in the northeast and Alawites and others in the capital and northwestern coastal area.
According to these sources, U.S. and Russian officials have privately been discussing what organs of the Syrian state would remain and at what level - who would have to go and who would have to stay - indicating the possibility of compromise.
Yet critics say talks in Geneva are becoming a substitute for real policy, with no concerted plan to stop the war. Some analysts compare this to the 1992-95 Bosnia war, where meandering prolonged talks failed to stop fighting until NATO air strikes against Serb forces in the late summer of 1995.
Close watchers of Syria and the opposition, which has agreed in principle to attend the long-delayed talks, believe Geneva II will be futile because the West has no strategy to force a stop to a war which has so far cost 100,000 lives, displaced more than 4 million people and created 2.2 million refugees.
"Even if Geneva II takes place, don't expect an imminent solution. There might be more Genevas and the war will continue," Lebanese columnist Sarkis Naoum told Reuters.
"We had a war that went on for 15 years, envoys would meet but nothing would happen," Naoum said, referring to Lebanon's own 1975-1990 civil war.
Even if the parties agree in Geneva, analysts say, they would need to convince rebel armed groups on the ground, who have said nothing less than a commitment to end Assad's rule would persuade them to stop fighting.
"I don't see how Geneva II will be remotely successful if the regime is not prepared to make the slightest indication that they are ready for a transition. Assad is saying the opposite, he is giving interview after interview saying that he will not hand over power," one source close to the opposition said.
Western nations hope Russia will follow up on the deal to rid Syria of chemical weapons by putting pressure on Assad. But with the deal in place and government forces making gains, there is little incentive for Russia to change its position.
If the Geneva talks go ahead and succeed, Russia will be able to cast itself as a peacemaker. If not, it will continue to blame rebels, the West and Gulf Arab states, saying that Assad's government was ready to attend without preconditions while the United States and others failed to get the rebels to do so.
Militarily, Assad's forces, backed by Iran and Hezbollah, are flushing out rebels from around Damascus and other areas.
Within rebel ranks, Sunni jihadists and other groups linked to al Qaeda have become the dominant current among the opposition while other, moderate, groups, backed by the West and armed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are in disarray.
And while international players deliberate about Geneva, the Syrian battleground continues to draw in foreign radical Shi'ite fighters - backing Assad's Alawite minority rule - and Sunnis seeking to topple Assad and install an Islamist caliphate.
"The U.S. is pursuing a very dangerous strategy which is to say they pursue talk almost for the sake of talks," the source close to the opposition said. "The only way this war will end is if the regime goes," the rebel source said.
"If there is not going to be military intervention against the regime then there needs to be a much more aggressive and deliberate approach to force the regime to step down through harsh pressure, and that means forcing Russia and Iran to make it happen."
Few believe that Geneva will alleviate the sufferings of Syrians in the near future.
"The logic in the U.S. is that the only way for the opposition to snatch a political victory out of the jaws of military defeat is through Geneva II," Gerges said. "The chances of Geneva II producing a breakthrough probably are less that 20 percent.
"It is a grim situation ... it is a prolonged war, a war of attrition, and in the meantime the humanitarian crisis will intensify and turn into a world tragedy of great proportion."
(Additional reporting by Angus McDowall and Steve Gutterman; Editing by Dominic Evans and Peter Graff)