It's tempting to look away from Syria, but that'd be reckless

It's tempting to look away from Syria, but that'd be reckless
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Syria’s conflict is back in the headlines. After months of chipping away at a disengagement agreement reached last September, the Assad regime’s offensive against the last bastion of rebel control is now fully underway.

Images emerging from Idlib province are distressingly familiar. Hospitals, schools and bakeries have been singled out for attacks by the regime and its Russian patrons. The civilian death toll is rising.

More than 150,000 have already fled regime attacks, but there is nowhere for them to go. Camps for the internally displaced are full. Turkey, already host to more than 3.5 million refugees, has closed its borders. 

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After eight years of violence, most observers have grown weary of Syria’s long and brutal conflict. With ISIS now deprived of its territorial holdings, it is tempting just to look away from the worst war of the 21st century to date. But in fact, that would be reckless.

The Assad regime claims it is acting to eliminate radical Jihadists in Idlib, where 3 million people now reside. A few thousand of those individuals are al Qaeda, ISIS or similar partisans; most are innocent civilians caught in the crossfire — and subject to the indiscriminate barrel bombings in which President Assad's forces specialize.

Once again, humanitarian crisis looms. Once again, the Assad regime is threatening the stability of its neighbors and fueling the resentments that drive radicalization. Once again, the regime is making a mockery of its proclaimed commitment to a political settlement of the civil war that has wracked Syria for more than eight years. 

American leverage in Syria is limited. Our ability to prevent a looming catastrophe in northern Syria has been weakened by years of ineffectual diplomacy. There could be a path forward, however, if the U.S. is prepared to marshal its limited leverage and revitalize its diplomatic role.

To lower the risks of future catastrophe and to retrieve any possibility for a political settlement, the U.S. will need to engage far more actively to end the current offensive in Idlib, reduce human suffering and engage with Turkey to respond to our shared interest in the removal of al Qaeda from Syria’s northwest.

A more effective Turkish effort to deal with al Qaeda, with U.S. backing, would remove the regime’s justification for its offensive and respond to Russian complaints that Turkey is not moving forcefully enough to remove Jihadists in Syria.

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Although the U.S.-Turkish relationship is badly strained, tensions should not stand in the way of cooperation where interests align. 

To give teeth to U.S. calls for an end to violence, further economic and diplomatic pressure on Syria and Russia is needed. Administration support for quick passage of two bills stalled in Congress, the Caesar Sanctions Act and the No Assistance to Assad Act, is one way to do this.

Yet such a step is only a prelude to the sustained U.S. diplomatic engagement that will be needed. The U.S. cannot be an effective advocate for a political settlement if it abdicates a forceful diplomatic role.

Thus far, international diplomacy has achieved little. Neither the Russian-led Astana process or the U.N.-supervised Geneva Process has been effective. In a diplomatic vacuum, military options are more likely to prevail.

The time is ripe for the U.S. to fill the gap and re-engage forcefully to advance its goal of a political settlement of the Syrian conflict. 

The key to effective diplomacy is to recognize our economic leverage and to work with our European and regional partners to mobilize it. Only the West, the Gulf States, and the international financial institutions have the more than $200 billion Syria needs to rebuild.

Iran, Russia and allies have next to nothing. Assad won’t accept political compromises just to open the aid spigots. But if we are smart, others may help push him to do so.

What should the goals of U.S. diplomacy be? Ending the Idlib offensive is an immediate priority, but its efforts must be directed at securing a political settlement of the Syrian conflict that will provide for the long-term stability of Syria and address the issues that drove Syria into conflict in 2011.

The U.N. can still play a central role in supporting a new framework for negotiating a political settlement: Security Council Resolution 2254 and the Geneva Accords of 2012 remain key starting points for any diplomatic process.

Effectiveness, however, will require U.S. leadership in defining the criteria for such a settlement. These should include, at a minimum, a process of political decentralization that offers Syrians, including Syria’s Kurds, a more secure future and a political transition in Damascus to achieve a leadership transition, even if a transition is guided by the current regime. Changes to Syria’s constitution to avoid the abuses that drove Syrians to rise up in 2011 are also essential.

In other words, a settlement must create a path over time to induce Assad to step down. He won’t do so to let the opposition replace him with a leader of its own choosing. That would be snatching defeat from the jaws of military victory.

There will be no free and fair elections in Syria. But a managed transfer of power, with Assad having some say in the choice of his successor, may work — especially if we make clear to Moscow and others that there is no other way to open up assistance flows. 

If U.S. and European allies wish to preserve possibilities for a political settlement that will provide security for Syrians — and not just for the Assad regime — now is the time to act. An alternative path to a real political settlement for Syria is still possible.

To achieve it, however, will require increased U.S. and European pressure on the Assad regime and on Russia to end the current offensive. It will require closer U.S. cooperation with Turkey in removing radical Jihadist forces from northern Syria.

It will also require U.S. diplomatic leadership to craft a political process that offers a real chance to achieve a political settlement capable of advancing the security of Syrians and not just the security of the Assad regime.

Steven Heydemann is Ketcham chair in Middle East studies at Smith College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Michael O’Hanlon is senior fellow and director of research in the foreign policy program at Brookings.