Diplomats sometimes refer to an especially dangerous and intractable situation as "a problem from hell." Syria, where a civil war has frustrated all attempts at resolution, qualifies in all respects.
No one can be satisfied with the situation in Syria today. The killing goes on, with the death toll in the 5-year-old conflict estimated at 400,000. Five million refugees have fled Syria because of the fighting; the largest number is in Turkey, but many are seeking safety in Europe and elsewhere in the West, unsettling these regions.
Syria is beset by an exceedingly complex array of conflicts. President Bashar al-Assad is fighting a panoply of rebel forces that have competing programs and interests. Kurds have fought to carve out a mini-state on the border with Iraq and Turkey.
Then there is the fight against ISIS, which is based in Syria and controls territory there. ISIS, which has no allies, is battling many actors, including the United States. A tangled web of alliances and the involvement of outside powers make this confrontation all the more intractable. Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United States and Turkey are all engaged in the conflict.
The Syrian state is feeble and unstable, bolstered by Russian and Iranian support. Assad's forces are worn down by five years of continuous fighting. Hundreds of militias with a wide range of ideologies operate in Syria: Some are terrorist groups, some are nationalists and some are Islamists. It is all but impossible to sort them out and evaluate which could serve as American allies.
No power seems strong enough to win the field militarily, and multiple cease-fire agreements have failed. A tragedy of historic scale is unfolding before our eyes.
Against this backdrop, the United States has pursued a policy of caution and restraint. Our leaders have decided not to intervene with major force in Syria; they have been reluctant to engage U.S. forces in direct combat. They have insisted that a negotiated settlement is required; but, despite sustained and vigorous diplomacy, they have not been able to achieve it.
U.S. policy in Syria has many critics. They point to the horrendous violence and the failure to achieve a political solution, and they suggest alternative approaches.
Some critics call for establishing and expanding "safe zones" where civilians would be protected from attacks. President Barack Obama, with U.S. military assent, has rejected this idea because of its high cost, the risk of inadvertent escalation and the large commitment of troops that would be required to ensure the zones are truly safe.
Others advocate "no-fly zones" where Assad's forces would be prevented from bombing civilians and rebel-held areas. Other suggestions are to increase air drops to alleviate the shortage of food and medical supplies in areas that are under siege, to ratchet up economic sanctions against Russia and to provide more and better arms to the Syrian opposition, ill-defined as it is.
Critics say America's policy of nonintervention in Syria has allowed Assad to escalate the violence. They insist we must act; we must do something -- anything -- to prevent more killing. But no one seems to have a solution to this deadly tragedy.
The steps that some critics have advocated, such as imposing safe zones and no-fly zones, would be seen as an escalation of the conflict on the part of the United States. If we decide to go that route, we will need to be prepared to back up our decision with force.
And experience suggests that these steps, as risky as they are, may not fundamentally change the current facts on the ground. The question becomes: If safe zones, no-fly zones and air drops don't achieve their purpose, what do we do next?
Our objectives in Syria should be to reduce the violence, defeat ISIS and advance a political solution. But all of these are proving to be difficult to accomplish.
The challenges in Syria bring us face to face with perennial questions about American foreign policy: What should our role be in international affairs? Do we have the capacity to intervene decisively in the world's trouble spots? If we have the capacity, do we have the will?
Figuring out what to do about Syria is not something we should decide in the overheated forum of the current political campaign. It simply is not clear what the next steps should be for the United States. The decisions have to be reached carefully, based on thorough assessments of the complex situation and made in consultation with the military and foreign policy experts and, to the extent possible, with the support of the American people.
Almost certainly, this problem from hell is one that President Obama will hand to his successor unresolved.
Lee H. Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs; and Senior Advisor, IU Center on Representative Government. He served as U.S. Representative from Indiana's 9th Congressional District from 1965-1999.