The one consistent thing about the Syrian civil war is that there never seems to be an attractive way to end it. If Assad “wins” his rule will be weakened and he will likely be a proxy of Iran and will rule over a large Sunni population that hates him and is better armed than before. That’s an untenable position to be in at best. If the opposition forces win then the Sunni majority will likely exact revenge on the Alawites and any supporters they had in the country. Furthermore, these factions will most likely turn on each other once the single threat of Assad is removed.
Recently Secretary of State Kerry stated that he hopes that a diplomatic solution based on power sharing can be reached. Power sharing between the Alawite minority and the Sunni majority is not likely to succeed for two reasons. First, the power sharing agreement would be overtime and that would be very difficult to enforce. Could Assad be trusted to not jail to attack the opposition once they demobilized? Could the Sunni leaders commit not to consolidate power once Assad opens the government to reform? Second, the battlefield as it stands now will not allow either side to come to an agreement. They both still think they can win and to make matters worse they have funders that are willing to support them. Until the power relations outside Syria can come to an agreement and cease funneling money and guns across the border this war will continue. But as that seems unlikely, perhaps a some tactics of governance can point towards a solution.
Decentralization may point to a path around this however–some studies have shown that civil war combatants are more likely to sign a treaty if they are given some level of territorial autonomy. This would allow combatants to maintain political control over their own territory as well as control the security aspects. This path to decentralization and regional autonomy may result in a defensible peace.
However there exist problems in this strategy as well as Rothchild and Roeder point out. While decentralization may help to end ethnic conflict, it can also hinder the democratic process over time. There’s no guarantee that the Sunni camps would remain at peace while keeping Assad in power.
There are no good options in Syria just bad, worse and impossible. That said a plan that could incentivize actors to move towards peace at least in the short-term might be the best I’ve heard so far.