Let's face it -- bombing and pure hard power will not resolve the overall problem in Syria. The Syrian civil war was generated by the collision of the ideals of the Arab Spring and the totalitarian regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. If all we do is destroy the Islamic State -- admittedly job one at the moment, other terrorist organizations will spring up in what would continue to be an ungoverned space. We need a coherent political solution, which will best be constructed through diplomacy, not the war rooms of the Pentagon, NATO and Moscow. We need both hard power against ISIS but also smart power to solve the complex web of challenges in Syria.
And we can use history as our guide. In 1815, after Europe was torn apart by the Napoleonic Wars, a group of skilled diplomats led a lengthy conference in the Austrian capital of Vienna to resolve the many political, economic and territorial issues that were facing the continent. Henry Kissinger brilliantly explored the conduct and impact of the meetings in his book "A World Restored."
That Congress of Vienna more or less put Europe back together again and provided the stability that endured (albeit with occasional disruptions mid-century) until World War I. Two of the leading diplomats represented bitter foes in the wars: Minister Talleyrand of France and Prince Metternich of Austria. Together with other actors, they were able to convince the principal European powers of the need for compromise and resolution to move forward into the 19th century.
If all we do is destroy ISIS, other terrorist organizations will spring up in what would continue to be an ungoverned space.
In Vienna on Friday and Saturday, there was another highly contentious conversation at play: the discussions about the future of the tortured nation of Syria. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov, led two of the nearly 20 delegations present. They announced that they reached an agreement on a schedule for Syrian elections and a United Nations call for a cease-fire. However, it's not clear that either will resolve the conflict. They have yet to agree on a major sticking point -- what would happen to Assad.
The destruction of modern Syria is grounded in its creation: the post-World War I Sykes-Picot Treaty of 1916, which essentially confined a large number of disparate cultures, religions, languages and tribes into an artificially constructed set of borders: Sunnis, Alawite, Christians, Druze; Arabs, Palestinians, Kurds, Turkmen, Greeks, Armenians and others were forced into what is today "Syria."
With the Arab Spring and the attempt to overthrow the Assad regime has come hundreds of thousands killed and millions displaced. Most are fleeing not only the civil war itself, but also the medieval horrors of ISIS. The result of all this is waves of refugees marching and sailing through dangerous passages to a skeptical and largely unwelcoming Europe -- perhaps 3 million refugees will arrive by the end of next year.
We need a coherent political solution, which will best be constructed through diplomacy, not the war rooms of the Pentagon, NATO and Moscow.
All of this, of course, is highlighted by the horrific attacks in Paris, Beirut and in the air over the Sinai Peninsula over the past few weeks claimed by ISIS, which is free to operate in the ungoverned space created in central and eastern Syria. In Paris, at least 129 were killed and over 300 injured (many critically); the Beirut bombing directed against Hezbollah killed over 40; and the downing of the Russian commercial airliner killed over 200.
Given the stakes at play -- not only saving the people of Syria, but also facing what is clearly an emerging global threat in the form of ISIS -- the negotiators, who will meet again in Paris before year's end, have their work cut out for them. What they should do:
1. Start with the U.S. and Russia -- then bring in Iran and Saudi Arabia.
There are nearly 20 countries involved in the talks, and at that scale, they risk becoming a "chat room" without real substance. The U.S. and Russia must first hammer out a broad agreement each can live with and then get the Iranians and Saudis to agree. The others will go along.
2. Keep open the option of partitioning Syria.
In the long term, if elections do not resolve the conflict and the only path to an agreement leads to a break up of Syria, negotiators should strongly consider it. There is certainly recent precedent in Europe: after Tito's death, Yugoslavia -- another artificial and fictitious country -- broke apart. Even after the Bosnia War and the Dayton Accords settled many of the regional issues, Serbia was forced to give up Kosovo, where a distinctive minority lived and which today is recognized by well over a hundred countries.
A partitioned Syria might include an Alawite enclave centered on Damascus and the coast; a central Syria controlled by moderate Sunnis (after the defeat of ISIS -- no trivial task); and a Kurdish entity in the northeast. Conceivably they could be federated loosely, but trying to put a very broken country back together again as a fully integrated and functioning state may be a bridge too far.
3. Be prepared to compromise on what happens to Assad.
Virtually everyone, with the exception of Russia and Iran, wants to get rid of the Assad regime. Its record of torture, impunity, use of weapons of mass destruction (lethal gas against its own population) and indiscriminate barrel bombing of civilians is simply reprehensible and highly illegal under international law. But without Russia and Iran in agreement, there is no realistic path forward.
In the end, whether Assad ends up in a Dacha in Moscow, a luxury apartment in Tehran or a jail cell in the Hague matters little compared to the enormous humanitarian suffering of millions of people. Naturally, the U.S., Turkey (and other NATO members) and the Gulf Sunni states want him tried and punished. But to get to a diplomatic and political agreement, that goal will probably have to be put on hold, at least for a period of time.
4. Build on the relationships forged in the Iran Nuclear Deal.
Regardless of how anyone feels about the Iran deal -- and it is simply too soon to measure its long term impact, several of the key negotiators around the table know and respect each other as a result: Secretary Kerry, Russian Minister Lavrov and Iranian Minister Zarif, for example. Diplomacy -- as we saw at the 1815 Congress of Vienna -- is often built (or broken) on personality.
5. Use diplomatic techniques from the Balkans negotiation.
The closest recent historical example of what the international community is trying to do is what occurred in the Balkans in the mid-1990s as the world came together -- more or less grudgingly -- to stop the Bosnian War. The levels of violence and displacement are quite similar when population adjusted. In the Balkans, the concept of the Dayton Accords and the methodology to reach an agreement -- including personal diplomacy, off-site conferences, shuttle diplomacy, employing military experts from both sides -- would be useful for the negotiators to examine and apply.
6. Separate the campaign to destroy ISIS from the political and diplomatic efforts to resolve the Syrian civil war.
This just got easier given the new perception of global threat from ISIS after the bombings in Paris and elsewhere. The international community will come together to attack ISIS; but simultaneously it must negotiate a way forward politically and diplomatically.
These tasks are obviously intertwined, but one is a hard power problem (the destruction of ISIS) and the other a smart power challenge (resolving the civil war in Syria). By prioritizing the response to ISIS on the hard power side and vigorously pursuing negotiations, we have our best shot at alleviating the misery of millions of Syrians while reducing risk to the region and the world. The new Congress of Vienna has hard work ahead indeed.