One thing everyone can agree on, whether they be dove or hawk, liberal or conservative, is that Syria is a nightmarish mess. Paris and November 13th have brought all that back into focus for the West – even if we thought there was a simple solution to the migration crisis (which there isn’t), no one can reasonably argue that ISIS isn’t a threat to the peace of western democracies any longer.
So what do we do? This requires a much longer, proper think tank piece to do it justice (which I am currently starting on at the moment), but I’ll try and cover the basics here. The two most important elements to there being any hope of peace in Syria are these: America must be fully committed and more importantly, convince everyone else in the world they are fully committed to ending the Syrian conflict. The stop/start machinations of the Obama administration have convinced both their friends, enemies and frenemies that they aren’t serious about tackling the Syrian problem. They would need to show a lot of resolve to reverse this. Second key element would be convincing Putin that whatever happens in Syria from here on, when the dust settles the country will still be in Russia’s “orbit of influence”. In practice this means Russia treating a peaceful Syria as a client state, which isn’t great. But it’s a lot better than thousands of people dying every week.
The idea of appeasing Assad and trying to work with him, putting aside the large moral dilemma that would throw up, won’t work. Assad is just trying to hold onto power by any means – as a result, he’s much more concerned about the FSA than ISIS, and by some margin too. As it stands, the Syrian regime and ISIS, while not being friends by any means, do have a symbiosis. They both have the same enemy, and for now are mostly avoiding direct conflict with one another if they can help it. In fact, this is the crux of the problem: ISIS is no one’s priority in the region, in reality. While the Kurds will fight them if they try and take their territory, or battle to gain back territory lost to Daesh, the truth is the Kurds are not interested in fighting other people’s battles on other people’s territory. In some ways, even though ISIS is a sworn enemy of the Kurds, the presence of ISIS is temporarily useful to them: having a bunch of Sunni fanatics sitting between them and the Iraqi regime isn’t the world’s worst buffer.
This is why ISIS continues to gain strength: no one is currently trying to take them out in earnest. The airstrikes aren’t enough; there needs to be a ground invasion. The Americans and Europeans are unwilling, and besides they would have a hard time being trusted on the ground after Iraq and the last four years of dithering. The only people who could reasonably do it are the FSA. So again, to repeat: appeasing the Assad regime won’t work.
But back to my original question: is there a real, lasting solution to this mess? Or is there no way to stop Syria from having a continuous civil war, with the repercussions being destabilisation of the entire region, possibly into Turkey and even the Balkans, not to mention repeats of what we saw in Paris a week ago today? I’m working on it.