If you said Iraq and Syria, you would have captured precisely what appears to be the strategy.
The chorus of analysts observing the developments in Iraq over the past summer, particularly, have noted many things but one stands out: the sectarian policies of Nouri al-Maliki, the former Prime Minister, needed to go. His government marginalized the Iraqi Sunnis and enraged them to the extent that many were willing to sign up alongside the Islamic State as it pushed across Anbar province in June. Despite Mr. Maliki’s initial reservations, he ultimately stepped down as international pressure mounted on him. Crucially, even Iran rejected Mr. Maliki in the end.
As the new Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, begins to take on the herculean task of fighting back the Islamic State and mending torn ties with Sunnis, there is a measure of satisfaction that world leaders are espousing in regards to the political success with Iraq. They are right to feel elated that one sore point was removed, even if many others remain -- Iraq could not stay united under Mr. Maliki’s rule. But interestingly enough, those same calls for political transition that is then supported by military attacks have been absent in Syria.
Mr. Obama has “insisted that additional U.S. action depended upon Iraqis forming an inclusive government” and he has achieved this (assuming Mr. Abadi follows through and reworks the system), but there has been no such insistence for Syria. Mr. Obama was correct in pointing out that “inclusive political transition that responds to the legitimate aspirations of all Syrian citizens, regardless of ethnicity, regardless of creed” is precisely what Syria needs, but as yet there has been little substance on this matter.
Words alone will hardly bring the Syrian government to the negotiating table. Mr. Assad, Syria’s President, needs an incentive, or else there will be another Geneva II, which amounted to nothing in terms of ending the political deadlock in Syria.
Is the answer here then to bomb Mr. Assad? Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) have been vocal supporters of doing just that; it should be mentioned that Mr. Assad recently snubbed the West with the announcement of new chemical weapons facilities. Tempting as it may be, bombing Mr. Assad is no transition scheme. The political vacuum that would emerge would turn Syria into another Libya, giving the Islamic State the ability to own the show.
Rather than a preoccupation with the American military route to force a transition (Mr. Assad can’t object to a transition if he’s been bombed to oblivion, right?), the United States should actively pursue a return of peace negotiations. Sounds hare-brained to advocate for, given the lack of incentive that Mr. Assad has -- so he should be provided an incentive.
To create an incentive, the United States needs to understand precisely what it wants out of Syria. It would appear that the United States does not want Mr. Assad to stay in power (I write “appear,” because the policy of fighting the Islamic State almost exclusively benefits Mr. Assad). If that is the case, then the United States should not beat around the bush. It should truly arm the opposition, as it says it will, and provide greater support to bring the moderates together. It can then push for new negotiations, which, assuming a resurgence on the battlefield, could compel Mr. Assad to make concessions which he has thus far felt no compulsion to do.
One would suspect, though, that the United States is actually fearful of Mr. Assad falling now, lest Syria become a cesspool of Jihadism if the groups the United States has pinned its hopes on fail to unite the country. Because of this, the United States has rather explicitly ruled out striking Mr. Assad and the fact that Mr. Assad has not fired at coalition airplanes speaks that some form of agreement was reached. Arms that were supposed to be supplied ages ago flow to rebels very slowly. If this is the case, that the United States feels as though Mr. Assad is necessary for Syria, then it (again) should not beat around the bush hoping that a credible alternative will arise. Though it would be a backtrack on what the United States has pledged, preserving Mr. Assad’s tenure could push the country back towards stability in the short-term and provide an opportunity for talks down the road that would see him exit in a manner sufficient to his people and to foreign countries that have been exploiting the war (take your pick).
If it was true for Iraq then it is true for Syria: a political solution is necessary. While Mr. Obama and his allies would hope that such a solution sees the removal of Mr. Assad from power (the key to long-term stability), options for achieving this now are relatively limited, and those options available are risky and as yet have not been exploited. What has emerged, rather, is a quasi-plan that implements half-measures while ensuring that the status quo, a vicious civil war wherein people are slaughtered wholesale daily, is continued. If the Islamic State’s (and Jabhat al Nusrah’s) rise is any indication, keeping this up is not a responsible way to end the conflict and is rather dangerous, not just for the region but for the world.