As President Obama has suggested, confronting the threat of the Islamic States in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in Syria will be far harder and more complex than responding to the ISIS challenge in Iraq. This is primarily because of the convergent interests and threat perceptions among the United States, the new central government in Baghdad, the Kurds, the Gulf States, and Turkey when it comes to Iraq. With unprecedented unanimity, these actors have agreed on a period of U.S. airstrikes against ISIS in support of Iraqi and Kurdish operations on the ground, on rebuilding a more inclusive Iraqi government, and on increasing local governance while protecting the territorial integrity of Iraq.
By contrast, when it comes to Syria, there is no consensus view on where the threat of ISIS fits into the overall political solution to the crisis. ISIS holds approximately a third of Syrian territory, with the rest under regime control or contested militarily, including by a mosaic of jihadi groups often with different sets of patrons in Turkey and in the Arab world. These groups, and the non-Islamist Free Syrian Army, are fighting each other even as they fight the regime. Meanwhile, Assad believes he has successfully convinced his neighbors of his indispensability. He will try to take advantage of international efforts against ISIS to reclaim his legitimacy.
It’s time for the U.S. government to force a discussion of the broader Syrian end game. The United States should encourage Turkey and the Arab Gulf states to agree on a number of principles that will guide Syrian conflict resolution: de-escalation among the conflicting parties, de-centralization of power away from the regime through a protracted transition process, and diffusion of the sectarianism fueling the fighting. In short, the U.S. must ensure that the Arab Gulf States and Turkey give up any maximalist visions of a future, Sunni-dominant Syria.
The September 7, 2014 Arab League announcement of collective security in the face of the ISIS threat is a good start. Saudi Arabia’s decision to train Syrian opposition fighters in a base on its territories is also an unprecedented development. The U.S. government needs to push the members of the Arab League further and Turkey further, however. They must accept that any short-term resolution of the conflict will likely entail locally-governed territories, connected through a loose power-sharing system as part of a protracted transition. At this point, there is unlikely to be a winner-take-all victory.
Therefore, it is not enough for the Arab and Turkish allies in the region to join the U.S. fight against ISIS in Syria. These states must be more forthright, publicly, that they have given up any maximalist visions of a future Syria, and its sectarian make-up. In Doha, Ankara, and Riyadh the leaders should start discussing power sharing arrangements that require compromises by all sides. The United States must make it clear that its counterterrorism assistance to improve the resiliency of these states requires greater alignment of their Syria strategy with ours.
There is some indication that the Gulf states, the Turks, and the nationalist Syrian rebels have all learned their lesson about the dangers of playing with fire on the jihadi issue. But it is no longer possible to speak in generalities with U.S. allies about Syria’s future. The discussion of the transition process must be more explicit, focusing on a number of contentious issues:
First, do all sides agree on the identity of the “moderate opposition?” There are many other non-ISIS but powerful Islamist trends within the Syrian rebellion, and many of them might be considered “moderate” by our allies but not by the United States. Moreover, given the fluid coalitions and competitive dynamics among the regime opponents, the contours of both the nationalist and the jihadist factions are constantly shifting. The recent attack against 45 members of Ahrar al-Sham, including the head of the Islamic Front, is sure to complicate the landscape of the opposition’s politics even further.
Second, what does transfer of executive authority mean if Assad rejects a transitional government? Can de facto power sharing occur in Syria absent an actual brokered agreement, by freezing the current conflict and slowly eroding the regime’s executive power over time?
Third, a discussion with the Arab and Turkish allies could help to determine how de-centralization of power may work best in Syria? (The record of power-sharing successes in the Arab world is thin, but Syria’s neighbors are the best placed to offer input on how decentralization might work. Yemen is one example, although the success of the decentralized governance model there is debatable.)
Fourth, would the Arab states support a greater United Nations role, if any, in areas of Syria that have been liberated from ISIS but not returned to the regime? Would it be possible to set up an UN-run area in the Eastern part of Syria as part of the power-sharing agreement?
Fifth, can the new Arab League coalition focus on ISIS in the short term, while also helping to de-escalate the Syrian conflict, or are the two goals mutually exclusive?
U.S. Syria strategy will require revisiting the specific contours of the Syria exit plan with America’s regional allies. It’s time to get on the same page.
Rand is director of Studies at the Center for a New American Security, and is a former staffer at the National Security Council, the State Dept. and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.