Western concerns over the flood of refugees from Syria is obscuring the real problem in that country, says a former senior United Nations official – the conflict itself that has killed a quarter of a million people and forced half the country's population to flee their homes.
"Let me tell you," said Mokhtar Lamani, the UN and Arab League representative in Damascus from 2012 to 2014, "if the war continues, another eight million displaced people will also flee Syria and head for the West."
The long-time diplomat's advice: "Help the refugees, by all means. But put most of your energy into ending the war."
That war lurched this week in favour of the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front rebels who have been battling government forces in the northwest province of Idlib. The last Syrian soldiers were pulled out Wednesday following the loss of a major airfield to the rebels.
The loss prodded Russia to dispatch additional forces and materiel to the Latakia area west of Idlib, apparently in aid of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while raising eyebrows in Washington and at NATO headquarters.
Events also appear to have made some NATO members reconsider their blanket refusal to allow Mr. al-Assad a role in any transition government.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently tried to resurrect talks aimed at implementing a 2012 peace proposal that had been endorsed by the UN Security Council but was rejected by both sides in the war.
The Geneva Communiqué was directed at ending the violence in the civil war, now in its fifth year, rebuilding the country, and returning the people to their homes and communities. Among other things, it called for a transitional governing body to rule the country during this challenging phase. The nature of this transitional authority became the stumbling block.
The Assad regime (and its backers in Tehran and Moscow) wanted Mr. al-Assad and other officials to be part of the transition process. The rebels (and their Western and Arab backers) insisted Mr. al-Assad had to go – preferably going on trial for war crimes.
Over that disagreement three years ago, the entire plan was shelved, the war intensified and another 200,000 Syrians were killed.
"From what I have seen inside Syria," Mr. Lamani said in an interview this week, "the people cannot reach agreement themselves. Each side continues to believe it can win the war by military means.
"A solution will have to be imposed from outside," he concluded.
Any resolution will have to have broad international support, a difficult proposition when the major backers have had different agendas, especially when it comes to Mr. al-Assad.
Russia and Iran worry that Syria will descend further into chaos and fall to a radical Islamist force such as Islamic State, which controls about a third of the country.
They insist the Syrian President must continue to play a role in running the country. The U.S. and Europe, along with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, have all insisted that Mr. al-Assad vacate power.
"In the end, Assad has to go," said Rami Khouri, a Beirut-based political analyst and columnist, "but not immediately, because without Russia and Iran backing a plan, nothing is going to happen," he explained.
"The U.S., Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia must converge on a middle-ground transitional plan that will see him in place for a while. But real change in Syria will only happen after Assad goes," Mr. Khouri said.
Indeed, just this week, the West's position against Mr. al-Assad began to unravel as various countries moved to embrace the middle ground.
Spain's Foreign Minister, Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo, allowed on Monday that talks with Mr. al-Assad might be necessary to end the war. And speaking in Tehran on Tuesday, Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz said the West should involve Mr. al-Assad in the fight against Islamic State terror.
"One should not forget the crimes that Assad has committed," Mr. Kurz said, "but also not forget the pragmatic view of the fact that in this fight, we are on the same side."
Most significantly, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond announced Wednesday that Britain could accept Mr. al-Assad staying in place for a transition period if it helped resolve the country's conflict. "If there is a sensible plan for transition that involves Assad remaining in some way involved in the process for a period of time, we will look at that, we will discuss it," Mr. Hammond said. "We are not saying he must go on Day One," he said.
The catalyst for bringing some of these countries together appears to be Islamic State and the threat it poses to the region.
Early this summer, Moscow put forward a peace plan for Syria that would have Syrian forces, as well as Iran, join the coalition against Islamic State. However, talks with Washington and Riyadh produced no agreement, and now Russia is strengthening its military presence in Syria.
The move, apparently concentrated around Latakia on the Mediterranean coast, is likely an effort to safeguard its naval facility in nearby Tartous, but it also may be a move to help preserve Mr. al-Assad's Alawi homeland should the Syrian leader be forced to retreat there.
Washington has criticized the Russian deployment of military personnel and armoured vehicles as prolonging the war, but Mr. Khouri, the political analyst, notes it is also "a way to maintain Mr. al-Assad's trust in Moscow – which will make it easier for the Russians to persuade him to leave office at some point."
"Whatever happens, the world must act quickly," said Mr. Lamani, the former UN diplomat. "Don't be surprised to wake up one morning to a genocide carried out in Syria," he said. "The necessary components are already there."