The least worst path in Syria
With everything going on with Syria and ISIS these days, you would think I’d be eager to offer my solutions to the problems facing the Middle East and, now, after the tragic events of the last couple weeks, the West. After all, there is no shortage of commentators and politicians offering up their recipes for combating ISIS –everything from “bomb the hell out of them” to vague pleas for multilateral partnerships that will somehow save the day.
Sadly, there are no easy plans for combating ISIS that don’t involve major drawbacks. If we were to invade like we did in Iraq, the outcome would likely turn out poorly. If we do little as we did in Afghanistan in the nineties, then the outcome likely turns out poorly. If we support the Kurds, Turkey objects. If we stopped opposing the Syrian government, which is politically impossible anyway, we’d lose the limited cooperation offered by the Saudis and the Turks. We try to create our own militias, and they end up disappearing or cooperating with al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s Syrian proxy. Finding a recipe to the ISIS and Syria problem is like finding a recipe for un-cooking an omelet.
The US administration’s slow-and-steady “just trust us” approach hasn’t convinced the majority of Americans. The administration is presumably hoping that if it wears down ISIS enough – hollows it out financially and militarily – that something good will happen. Presumably that something is an offensive by the Iraqi army, “friendly” rebel forces, and perhaps a spontaneous uprising within ISIS territory akin to the Iraq Awakening movements that turned the tide of the Iraq War. Then the remaining “good guys” of the Free Syrian Army will defeat or put enough pressure on the Assad government that its leadership steps down and the other Islamist forces battling the government agree to a negotiated settlement and democratic order. US policy is based on the hope that a lot of things will go right.
Russian policy is based less on luck and more on coldblooded pragmatism. The Russians view the re-assertion of control by the Syrian government over its territory as the best path to ending the violence. It might be sad that this would involve killing a lot of well-meaning insurgents and ensuring that Syria remains a dictatorship ruled by a minority group, but that’s the way it is. As horrible as the Assad government might be, the likely alternative, a government aligned with ISIS or Al Qaeda, is worse.
While all the regional players are primarily motivated by their ethno-sectarian affinities and fears, the American and Russian are the only coherent alternatives forward for the rest of the world. Which is the better path?
The Russian course is the one that is more likely to bring an end to the Syrian civil war and ISIS’s control over territory in the region. Their desire to apply the principle of Occam’s razor applies to a complex, multi-sided civil war may be distasteful, even tragic, but there’s an undeniable logic to it.
Outside powers might not like what the Russians are doing, which is why Turkey felt compelled to provoke a confrontation with them this past week, but there’s not much anyone can do to prevent the Russians from helping the Syrian government. In the end, the US is best to stay the course it’s on with ISIS, while continuing to help the Kurds and Iraqi government strengthen their capabilities to reestablish order in their own territories. At least that’s my best guess about one of the most complicated problems the world has faced in modern times.