Analysis by Jill Dougherty
While Syrians are dying in horrendous attacks, it seems strange to hear diplomats talking about a "political transition" - a solution that, at this stage, seems like a pipe dream.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton already is describing that transition in detail. To achieve this, she explained last Thursday in Istanbul, there must be a "real cease-fire."
"Second, (Syrian President Bashar al-Assad) must transfer power and depart Syria. Third, an interim representative government must be established through negotiation," Clinton said in remarks after meeting with Turkey's foreign minister in Istanbul. "The transition phase must lead to a democratic, representative, and inclusive government. There must be civilian control of the military and security forces and respect for the rule of law and equality before the law for all Syrians."
Isn't that putting the cart before the horse?
But U.S. officials say there's a reason, even now amidst the bloodshed, for focusing on what should happen once al-Assad is gone, something Washington and its allies insist ultimately will happen.
Sure, everyone desperately wants a cease-fire, they say. Then you could move toward a political transition away from al-Assad.
"Why don't we have the cease-fire?" says State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. "We don't have the cease-fire, a, because Assad's not stopping, but, b, because people inside Syria continue to help him to perpetrate his violence."
Senior members of the Syrian military support al-Assad, U.S. officials note. Senior Syrian business leaders do, too. Then there are folks sitting on the fence, as Secretary Clinton puts it.
Describing how the post-al-Assad Syria would look could help peel away those Syrians who still support him, Clinton believes.
"We know that many still cling to the Assad regime because they fear change more," she said last week. "There are still many inside Syria - and this is human nature, this is totally understandable - who are not yet convinced that there can be a transition that would not make the situation worse for them, their families, their group, their location."
Speaking of transition, explained Clinton, could help peel some Syrians away from supporting al-Assad by articulating a "roadmap" for democratic transition" so that they can imagine a better future for themselves and Syria."
With the military, for example, Nuland says, "creating the reality of a political track that creates a real alternative to Assad can help convince members of the military who may be ambivalent, but still obeying orders, that, hey, there's a way out of this."
It's not just some Syrians who worry that the conflict could ignite fighting throughout the region, however. Russian government officials say Moscow could envision having al-Assad leave in a negotiated settlement but, with the country already engulfed in the beginning stages of a civil war, Russia fears the country could dissolve into chaos if that happens in an uncontrolled manner
But Nuland says Secretary Clinton and other U.S. officials are warning their Russian counterparts: it could get worse.
"Certainly, when we talk to Russians and others who fear a rise of terrorism in the region, who fear instability spilling over borders, " she says, "among the points that we make is that continuing to protect Assad and buy time for him is increasing the likelihood that precisely what you say you don't want is going to come about."
The aim of crafting a post-al-Assad political transition, she says, is "to create a perception of inevitability and reality there with all groups that are concerned - international and Syrian - to peel off those who are still supporting Assad or who are afraid of change with the real prospect of how this can be done in a stable, managed way that supports the human rights and aspirations of all."
It sounds good, in theory. The real test will be - will Bashar al-Assad go along with it?