While the greatest humanitarian tragedy of our times unfolds in Syria, diplomatic jockeying and other military efforts to find a settlement in this war-torn country remains ineffective. Because the Syrian civil war posed no real security threat to Israel, no Western country has genuinely cared about the plight of millions of Syrians whose lives were destroyed in the conflict, currently in its fifth year.
The Obama administration's default hands-off strategy in foreign policy matters is a promise the president does not have an intention to renege. Obama's "let's give diplomacy a chance" principle has assured adversaries that there is a "long way" until the U.S. brandishes a stick. The administration mostly failed to recognize that a military engagement, even a limited one, is a strong argument in diplomatic discussions. Teddy Roosevelt's "speak softly and carry a big stick" is a golden principle this administration ignored at the cost of major US interests.
The Obama administration's Syria policy was so obscure that the strategies had to change repeatedly based on ever-shifting circumstances on the ground. From Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's departure "in weeks" to Obama's infamous Red Line, nearly its entire Syrian strategy was altered over and over to fit to new conditions. In the meantime, thousands were laid to rest every month. The U.S. could never dictate to the war in Syria, let alone having any leverage, and the failure to address the challenges there gave birth to a petulant child called ISIS.
Saying that ISIS is a priority threat is ludicrous. It is a threat that needs to be eradicated immediately, no doubt about that. But developments in Syria are not separate incidents divorced from each other. Every major movement in the country is closely linked to each other and lasting settlement is impossible to achieve once these challenges are addressed in its entirety.
Another failure of allies of the Syrian opposition was to recognize that no settlement is possible in Syria without the approval of the Assad's regime. Russia and Iran stand firm in propping up the Syrian dictator when there is a need. Ignoring the Syrian regime could play into the pride of the Syrian opposition, but it is a sure path to long years of war of attrition. Besides, along with Russia and Iran, Washington also believes that the destruction of the Syrian state would be disastrous. Drawing lessons from Iraq, US officials say there needs to be a political transition to make sure that state institutions are functioning.
There is some good news from Iraq. The army is becoming stronger every day, thanks to US efforts, and nearly 5,000 Sunni tribal fighters in Anbar are helping Shiite militias push back against ISIS. There is now a government in Baghdad that has declared war on corruption and nepotism and intends to root out sectarian discord. The initial success against ISIS in Iraq is made possible because of a strong central government that is ready to work with the anti-ISIS coalition.
In Syria, a U.S. program to create a similar ground force has been an utter failure while working with Kurdish YPG militias is something Turkey rejects.
Iraq remains a very good example for Syria. Here is what needs to be done to end the Syrian civil war.
First, Russia and the U.S. must spearhead a sustained effort to make sure that there is a political transition that satisfies both sides. ISIS is now on the doorstep of Damascus and poses a major threat to the entire Syria. Russia's recent military buildup to back the Syrian army is a move to strengthen Assad's hand in a possible transition. This is the reason why Assad has also decided to intensify air strikes on Damascus suburbs. The US must follow Russia's suit and back rebels to make whatever gains they could make.
Second, it will be difficult for Sunni rebels to fight alongside with the Syrian army personnel, who have wrecked havoc the entire country for four years, against ISIS. As primarily the case in Iraq, Alawite soldiers and Sunni fighters could fight separately in different parts of the country as a temporary measure. The departure of Assad will also make sure that Turkey, the biggest army in the region, will fully join the fight against ISIS.
Third, in post-ISIS period, most of the Syrian army should be sent to coastal areas. In future political discussions, there could be a need to grant an autonomy to the Alawite heartland, with a small corridor to Mediterranean carved out for the Sunni and Kurdish regions. Iraq made a fatal mistake to alienate and even lock up former Baathists, creating a backlash that had translated into a bloody civil war. The Syrian regime is viewed even with more deep-seated animosity. The brutality against Sunni population is hard to forget. But for peace, penance and amnesty are necessary.