Since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis, the Syrian regime has resorted to violence against the popular movement; therefore, it was natural for it to attempt to undermine any political initiative toward a political settlement in Syria, regardless of who stood behind it. Agreeing to such a settlement would have contradicted the regime's narrative of a "conspiracy" that can only be dealt with through force. Moreover, a settlement requires concessions, which the regime is incapable of contemplating. Throughout the past two years, the regime's behavior in dealing with various political initiatives was consistent with this attitude, which led to the failure of all these attempts.
The Arab League began seeking a settlement of the Syrian crisis relatively late; the first Arab initiative was proposed in September 2011, calling for a halt to violence and the withdrawal of all armed troops from the cities. This was to permit the organizations of the Arab League and the Arab and foreign media outlets to examine the events on the ground, and provide an opportunity for a political settlement that could lead to the resolution of the crisis. However, the regime continued its repression, which led to the failure of the initiative. The Arab League presented another plan on October 16, 2011, which included "the formation of a ministerial committee [...] whose mission is to establish contact with the Syrian leadership in order to halt all acts of violence, withdraw armed troops [from civilian areas], and effectuate the necessary contacts in order to launch a comprehensive national dialogue conference in the Arab League headquarters and under its sponsorship within 15 days". The opposition, led by the Syrian National Council, accepted the Arab League decisions, but the regime expressed reservations regarding the plan, simultaneously forming a committee to draft a new constitution in order to create an obstacle to the calls for reform and change. At the same time, the regime called for a national dialogue inside Syria under the auspices of the regime.
The official Syrian media harshly criticized the Arab League's decision, though the regime eventually agreed to receive the Arab ministerial committee in order to avoid the suspension of Syria's membership in the league. The regime exploited the committee's visit to Damascus to gain time, while attempting to promote its narrative about the crisis among the committee and its members. Moreover, the committee's presence in Damascus provided the regime with an opportunity to renew its threats to "inflame the region".
The regime persisted with its security solution since the Arab League resolution to form a team of observers, led by Sudanese General Mohammad al-Dabi, in order to observe the halt of violence and the humanitarian situation in Syria, did not lead to any tangible results. The first Arab observers entered the country on December 22, 2011, after the regime formally agreed to the initiative; on January 28, 2012, the league suspended the mission because the regime did not commit to the articles of the plan, and because of the deterioration of humanitarian conditions. Thus, the regime closed the path to a negotiated resolution. A Syrian opposition activist who has been amenable to dialogue with the regime since the beginning of the revolution, commented: "This message [the message of the Arab League] is very clear, in text and in content, and the regime attempted to skirt it by paralyzing the Arab initiative through methods and tricks that were as transparent as they were ridiculous".
Attempts for a resolution were also halted by the Security Council due to the double veto by Russia and China, which placed the Syrian people in front of a choice: either surrender to the regime and its proposed solutions, or face death, destruction, and displacement. Subsequently, the Arab League and the United Nations appointed Kofi Annan as an envoy to Syria in search of a resolution based on the Arab League decisions, calling for the formation of a cabinet with full powers while remaining vague regarding the post of the president and his future. In a press conference, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the Geneva meeting "paves the way for the post-Assad phase". Kofi Annan proposed a comprehensive six-point plan consisting of the following elements: committing to work toward a comprehensive political process led by the Syrians, halting the fighting and withdrawing troops, agreeing to a truce in order to deliver humanitarian aid, releasing all those who were arrested without cause, respecting journalistic freedom, and respecting the right to demonstrate. The opposition accepted the plan and the regime verbally approved it as well, but they did not enact any of its requirements, which in practice would have meant putting a stop to the killing, abstaining from using heavy weapons against cities, and permitting journalists to enter Syria. Thus, the Annan plan reached a deadlock, with Annan announcing, on August 2, 2012, his failure in achieving a settlement in Syria, complaining that "he did not receive sufficient support from the international community," and adding that he believes "that the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will have to leave sooner or later". He then wrote in the Financial Times: "It is clear that President Bashar al-Assad must depart from his position, and the focus should be on taking measures and building structures in order to guarantee a long-term peaceful solution that includes a transitional phase, in order to avoid a chaotic breakdown."
Afterward, Lakhdar Brahimi was appointed in mid-August 2012 to resume Annan's mission in seeking a political settlement in Syria. Annan's failed experiment in dealing with the regime was replayed with Brahimi as well, who declared his intention to resign, but was surprised by the Lavrov-Kerry agreement, which prompted him to put off his decision.
Multiple factors have helped in reaching a Russian-American agreement, opening the way for a settlement to the Syrian crisis. These include the Israeli aggression against Damascus, concerns about the intensification of the conflict, the increasing presence of Islamist battalions fighting in Syria, the pledge of allegiance made by the al-Nusra Front to Ayman al-Zawahiry, leader of al-Qaida, and the fears that the crisis could spread to neighboring countries. It was clear that US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov had reached a preliminary framework agreement over Syria involving a political solution through negotiations and dialogue. They agreed on the need to combat the extremist factions within the armed opposition and work toward the arrangement of talks between the regime and the opposition that would be a prelude to the formation of a transitional government, through a new conference to be held in Geneva. However, this proposed conference is to be held without any directing principle or frame of reference, except for the idea of a transitional government of unknown powers. Furthermore, the Russians have repeatedly insisted that the responsibility for security in Syria during this transitional phase, represented through the ministries of interior and of defense, were to remain in the hands of Assad. On the other hand, Kerry spoke with cryptic language about Assad's future, telling journalists: "only the opposition and the regime can determine the shape of the transitional government in order to carry out democratic elections".
Europe immediately declared its support for the agreement, along with China and the regional powers that support the regime, and the Arab League as well. On the other hand, the Arab states that support the Syrian revolution did not express much enthusiasm for the agreement.
This agreement places the Syrian people in front of a new, difficult juncture dominated by the notion of an international solution imposed from above, according to which the National Coalition would be pressured to engage in an unsatisfactory settlement, while the US pressures the Arab states and Turkey to stop the provision of military aid, regardless of its meager size. At the same time, the regime appears to have inaugurated the first chapters of sectarian cleansing, especially in Homs around al-Qusair and in al-Bayda and the Ras al-Nab neighborhood in Banias on the coast, acting with the support of Hezbollah, sectarian Iraqi forces (Asaib Ahl al-Haqq), and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
The circumstances of the agreement have permitted the regime to score several points in its favor on the political level. The declaration of allegiance made by al-Nusra toward al-Zawahiri caused worries in the West regarding the increase in the role of extremist and terrorist forces within the Syrian armed opposition, a fact that was exploited by the regime and its allies to the fullest extent possible. Moreover, the Israeli aggression against Damascus has allowed the regime to cover up the massacres of Banias and al-Bayda and the campaign of sectarian cleansing that was being waged by the regime's militias. These two events gave the regime the opportunity to reiterate its claims that it is being targeted by Israel, and that it is the victim of a conspiracy. The same circumstances have allowed the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, to declare that he stands by the "popular resistance" in Syria against the Israeli aggression, in order to cover up his war in al-Qusayr and sectarian demarche in Syria. Moreover, the pitfalls of the opposition, represented by the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, have given the regime some breathing space, especially when the head of the National Coalition, Ahmad Muath al-Khatib, resigned, demonstrating hesitation at the leadership level. This was reflected in the Coalition's behavior toward the crisis, preventing it from exploiting the political and diplomatic achievements that had been realized, such as the Arab League's acknowledgment of the Coalition as the official representative of the Syrian people instead of the regime, which was followed by the handover of the Syrian embassy in Doha to the Coalition. Had it not been for the support that the Coalition received from the United Nations through its most recent resolution, naming the Coalition as the main negotiator on behalf of the Syrian people, the damages would have been more severe.
It is not expected that important political developments capable of changing the picture on the ground will take place before the Geneva conference. However, it is certain that the National Coalition and the Free Syrian Army will be under strong pressure to commit to the proposed settlement; the US administration will exploit the contradictions and diversity within the opposition to push it toward painful concessions, if the US agreement with the Russians over the conference holds. However, it also appears that the forces of the Syrian revolution, including the National Coalition and the Free Syrian Army, have already established the ceiling of what is possible for them in terms of a settlement in Syria. Given the complex circumstances of Syria, any political solution that will lead to the unseating of the president will be a success for the Syrian people and its revolution, and a crushing defeat for the regime. On the other hand, any political solution in Syria that does not include the removal of the president will represent a defeat for the Syrian people and a glowing victory for the regime and its pillars, figures, principles, methods of governing, and means of repression.
The opposition cannot accept anything less than the unseating of the president and the organization of free elections under international supervision, and accountability for those implicated in murder. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Egypt supported this stance during a meeting held in Abu Dhabi, stating that there is no place for Assad in Syria's future.