Sadly, over the past six months, encouraging signs of local co-existence have fallen prey to growing revenge attacks by parties on both sides, leading to more sectarian consolidation. This has especially been the case in the previously mixed Sahel al-Ghab area, located between the coast and Idlib province, which has witnessed some of the worst sectarian massacres to date. Urban areas such as Damascus and Aleppo where significant mixed populations still reside (and where moderate opposition fighters are at the forefront) could remain integrated, perhaps with districts stipulating relative areas of control during the transitional period.
The aim of these measures isn't to divide Syria permanently, but rather to rescue the country from its rapid descent into permanent disintegration. Neighboring Lebanon owes its own shaky stability in part to demographic separation, whether in Beirut or in the predominantly Christian swath of land that runs from the capital all the way to Tripoli, physically separating the country's Sunni and Shiite populations. A map indicating relative areas of control would provide a tangible measure of clarity both to war-weary citizens and to wary peacekeepers.
All this still leaves unanswered the most pressing question of the day: What role does Assad play in these talks? U.S., Russian, and regional diplomats have already finessed this question, with both sides accepting the "no preconditions" formulation (meaning that Assad himself does not have to resign before talks begin). The stumbling block is behind the scenes: how to get Damascus not only to show up but to buy into a transitional process in which the regime's monopoly over state power would be removed. This is where Russian pressure -- augmented by the security assurances that are as meaningful for Alawites as they are for Sunnis and others -- would come in. In essence, the Russians needs to finally hold that "come to Jesus" meeting with Assad, in which Moscow makes clear that it can and will find alternatives to the Syrian leader if he does not empower a team to negotiate along U.N.-proposed terms.
On the opposition side, Sunni extremists represent a growing obstacle to peace, which is why it is so urgent to launch serious talks now. The best hope for marginalizing these spoilers is to provide the Syrian national opposition, backed by the United States, with a credible path to a share of power through negotiations in Geneva. Extremist spoilers -- and their regional supporters -- would then risk isolating themselves from the entire transition process. Some of them will no doubt take that risk and continue to fight. It will then be up to transitional security forces and U.N. peacekeepers to deal with any rejectionists in the wake of a deal. This is neither an easy prospect nor an impossible one. In any event, it is surely better than the alternative: continued fighting that results in Syria's disintegration and perpetual instability.
With security at the core of an international peace plan, the chances of luring a critical mass of Alawites, Christians, Kurds, Sunnis, and others into a ceasefire, then talks, and then ultimately peaceful interaction, would grow. In fact, multi-sectarian life in Syria has, against all odds, shown a surprising resilience in those areas where security has been restored. Conversely, without the promise of security, there will be no place in a dissolving Syria for minorities on any side, including the overlooked Sunnis who still enjoy economic privileges under Assad or those Alawites who oppose the regime and its brutality.
In short, it is time to revamp the diplomatic effort, putting security first. At this stage in the conflict, it is simply unrealistic to expect the parties to stop fighting and invest in a vague process that does not offer security as its core component. Indeed, with sectarian violence claiming a growing number of lives in Iraq and Lebanon -- two neighbors that already have established constitutions and hold elections -- why would Syrians of any stripe believe that mere talks about power sharing would keep their families safe?
If the Obama administration really wants to avoid getting embroiled in Syria, it will have to match its limited use of force with unlimited diplomacy, beginning with a serious and specific U.N.-backed peace plan. Now is the time to launch.