As David Cameron and Barack Obama met last week to discuss, amongst other things, the unfolding crisis in Syria and what their possible next steps might be, it seems a good time to pause and consider whether negotiation can still play a role in a potential solution here.

Obama has been keen to stress that military action in Syria would be premature and could lead to all out civil war. There is an even more worrying concern that this could turn into a conflict which destabilises the whole region with evidence that the Sunni rebels are backed by their co-religionists in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Equally, Iran’s support for the Syrian regime has been well publicised and this could extend to active military support should the West intervene.

So what are the alternatives to military action? Unfortunately, it is impractical to consider negotiation at the moment. As a rule, when only one side wants to negotiate, it’s hard to conduct any meaningful discussions and this seems to be such a situation. In his own mind, maybe Assad still believes (as Gaddafi did before him) that he can win by sheer application of power alone. Or maybe the stern example of his father who ruthlessly held power before him inhibits him from contemplating genuine negotiations. Or maybe he just can’t see a negotiated way out of the current crisis, since any negotiation would involve a diminishment or removal of his powers which would leave him and his allies highly vulnerable.

What then are the options available to the West which might bring Assad to the table and/or force a regime change?

1. Encourage Russia and China to stop blocking UN action

These two permanent members of the Security Council have been preventing the passing of resolutions calling for Assad to step down. Russia has been a long term ally of Syria which currently represents its only bastion of influence in the Middle East. Recent pronouncements from President Putin suggest that this support may be dwindling as the regime in Syria continues its relentless killing of its own people. However this has not so far resulted in a change in its stance at the UN. China’s position is harder to fathom. It has said it supports Arab League efforts to resolve the crisis but is opposed to the UN “complicating” things by getting involved. So, there seems no immediate prospect of a UN resolution as a way of forcing either negotiations or a regime change.

2. Help the Arab League to continue to put pressure on Assad

The League has already suspended Syria and last week called for an “international neutral investigation” into potential war crimes. In theory Arab League criticism would be expected to carry more weight with the Assad regime than criticism from outside the region, yet so far the regime has shown itself oblivious to such pressures.

Kofi Annan, UN-Arab League special envoy, has been quoted as saying in this past week that he believes that ‘the door of dialogue is still open’ with the Syrian authorities. This follows his recent discussions with Assad, Syrian foreign ministers and the opposition Syrian National Council, although there has since been no clear response from Assad to Annan’s proposals for ‘ceasefire, dialogue and humanitarian aid’. Privately, Western diplomats are said to believe that Annan has very little chance of breakthrough success here, and he himself agreed that the response from the Syrian government had been ‘disappointing’.

3. Sanctions

The European Union have just imposed its twelfth round of sanctions on Syria and the US have already imposed their own severe sanctions. The Arab League also imposed wide ranging economic sanctions last November, which Turkey has agreed to abide by. However, Russia and China have not backed such sanctions, and history shows that sanctions take a long time to make a difference.

4. Help the rebels by supplying them with arms

Though this could probably be done covertly through intermediaries, President Obama has openly said that the US will not be arming the rebels, as this action is also likely to nudge the situation into Civil War. The UK government has taken a similar view publicly. However, it must be likely that arms for the rebels will increasingly find their way into the country from outside sympathisers and Western Governments can be expected to turn a blind eye to that. This tactic involves a long and bloody campaign though, and many more innocent people will die before it could hope to be successful.

5. Find some elements of the Syrian regime who are more critical of the violence and more amenable to dialogue and negotiation

Can this kind of ‘divide and rule’ tactic work? Perhaps, if there are strains within the other side…

Last week the Syrian Deputy Oil Minister resigned by posting a very public video on You Tube – the first real sign that this kind of tactic may have some possibilities. There is also a squad of Alawites in the Free Syrian Army who have defected from the ruling Alawite sect. In addition, the Alawites of President Assad only account for some 12 percent of the Syrian population, and they depend on alliances with local business Christian groupings who form another 10 percent of the population. There may well be scope for disrupting this alliance and marginalising Assad still further, but this is a process that will take time.

We are not yet in the same place as we were UN Libya, where defections away from the ruling party became routine. However, it may provide the best hope of a breakthrough. Either Assad’s allies may be persuaded to desert him or maybe even his own Alawite sect could be persuaded to do so if given assurances about their own role and protection in any new regime. There will be many in Assad’s regime or connected to it who fear that they have no future at all unless the regime survives.

From a negotiating point of view, giving these people a sense that there may be a way out would address their “survival” needs and may in time be enough to tip them against the regime. Let’s hope so. As Kofi Annan said, “The situation is so bad and so dangerous that all of us cannot afford to fail.”