And, trust me, they will. So what comes next?
The Syrian peace talks that were to start last Monday, then Friday, just might get underway this week. But even if the Syrian regime accepts a U.N. resolution requiring an end to the starvation sieges it has imposed — as Syrian rebels are demanding as a precondition for joining the talks — the war is likely to go on and on, generating even more deaths and ever more refugees. The talks have virtually no chance of ending in a peace agreement.
The good news for the administration of President Barack Obama is that the talks may not end at all. Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. envoy charged with cajoling everyone to get into the same Geneva hotel, if not the same room, has said that he expects to shuttle among the parties for six months. The “process,” it seems, may long outlive even the strongest intimations of failure. As with the now-defunct Palestinian “peace process,” the Obama administration will thus be enabled to cling to the battered raft of diplomacy even as it ships water — at least until the last plank disappears.
Cynicism on this subject is cheap, I know. No solutions are in the offing and certainly not the “carpet-bombing” of the Islamic State favored by that swaggering Texan, Ted Cruz. It is absolutely true, as the administration maintains, that only diplomacy can ultimately stanch the bloodshed in Syria. And ending the Syrian civil war is in turn indispensable to the goal of eradicating the Islamic State. But the “Geneva process” is no more likely to succeed today than it was the last time it was tried, in 2014. Should they ever sit down, those on the other side of the table — the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, Russia, and Iran — will not feel compelled to accept any offer to which Syria’s rebels or their backers in the region could possibly agree.
So what’s Plan B? Ha. There is no Plan B.
Last year, de Mistura hoped to build a cease-fire from the ground up by negotiating a series of local freezes. That effort has stalled. Now that Assad is reclaiming territory from the rebels thanks to Russian air support, he has no incentive to agree to any halt save as a precursor to surrender by the rebels. That may help explain why de Mistura is preparing for long-term shuttle diplomacy. What choice does he have?
You could say that we are back where we were in 2013, when Secretary of State John Kerry was arguing that Assad would come to the negotiating table only if his “calculus” changed because he felt that he was losing the fight. But back then the Syrian civil war was merely an unspeakable humanitarian catastrophe about which Obama concluded he could do very little. That was before the rise of the Islamic State. While Assad’s barrel bombs don’t threaten U.S. national security, the Islamic State’s fantasies of replacing the nation-state system with a global caliphate very much do. Obama finally did intervene in Syria to bomb Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s fanatical jihadis, but not Assad.
Since a cease-fire in Syria would, at least in theory, facilitate a unified effort to take on the Islamic State, the administration now has a powerful motive to press the rebels to accept the best offer Assad makes, be it ever so onerous. Officials have insisted that they will do no such thing. Kerry and others have resolutely repeated the formulation that Assad must go, even if only at the end of a transition process. Some of the key actors in the region, including the UAE, have signed on to this proposition; others, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have resisted but might come around.
It probably doesn’t matter. Assad won’t accept that formula, and there are currently no signs that either Russia or Iran will force him to do so. At that point, the Obama administration, which will be running out the string on its tenure, will have to choose between a cynical commitment to a dead-end diplomatic process and helping the rebels finally change the calculus at a time when Assad has far stronger support than he did during the last two rounds of negotiations, in 2012 and 2014.
A tough-minded cynic — let alone a mere realist — might tell the rebels that the time has come to take what’s on offer, even if it’s a flimsy sugar coating on defeat. But that would be a mistake, and not just in moral terms, because it has become clear that the Islamic State cannot be defeated without the help of the Syrian rebels. Why is that? First, it’s widely understood that the Islamic State cannot be dislodged by bombing alone, any more than a group of supremely dedicated insurgents can be. A ground force must do the hard work of routing them from urban areas under their control. In Iraq, the Islamic State may be uprooted through a combination of American bombing and ground assaults by the Iraqi Army and the Kurdish Peshmerga. In Syria, the army belongs to the Assad regime, and the Kurds can’t and will not go far beyond Kurdish-majority zones. Any act of liberation by non-Sunni forces would be likely to outrage the Sunnis now under the Islamic State’s thumb, provoking a new round of sectarian bloodshed. That rules out Western forces. Sunni states, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, could furnish such a ground force, but they won’t. Each has enemies (the Kurds, Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood, in order) that preoccupy them more than Baghdadi’s men.
That leaves one and only one force — the rebels (not including al-Nusra Front, the al Qaeda affiliate) but certainly encompassing the nationalistically minded Salafists, such as Ahrar al-Sham. Jean-Pierre Filiu, a French diplomat and scholar of the Arab world, has called for the West to organize and support the rebels in an assault on the Syrian city of Raqqa, the caliphate’s capital. His logic runs as follows: The expanding circle of the Islamic State’s terrorist attacks abroad (Paris, and more recently Istanbul and Jakarta) shows that it can no longer be “contained.” The West must therefore act to reverse its triumphal narrative, which fuels recruitment of new warriors; the greatest blow to that narrative would be the fall of Raqqa. Filiu told me that the rebels from whom the Islamic State seized Raqqa, now concentrated around Aleppo, would be prepared to take on the Islamic State and could succeed with Western support. One rebel coalition has even offered to incorporate elements of Assad’s army that “are not directly connected to the Assad family.”
“But,” I asked, “wouldn’t the Russians bomb the rebels?”
“That’s the problem,” Filiu said. Washington would have to not only lead a bombing campaign against the Islamic State but also insist that Russia leave the good rebels alone.
I have no idea if this is plausible. Of the four experts whom I asked about Filiu’s plan, only one, Hassan Hassan, a Syrian journalist and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, agreed that rebel forces were both willing and capable. Charles Lister, a leading authority on the Syrian opposition and author of The Syrian Jihad, said that he thought Filiu was absolutely right that “taking [the Islamic State] on definitively in cities like Raqqa is the only way to genuinely dent the movement’s momentum and confidence,” but nevertheless concluded that a fragmented opposition reeling from attacks by the Assad regime and Russian bombers cannot be organized right now.
There are two very different ways to achieve the conditions necessary to make the rebels a meaningful anti-Islamic State force. The first is that the Geneva negotiations somehow succeed and Assad agrees to a nationwide cease-fire and the Russians stop bombing the rebels. Senior American military officials have already concluded that they will need to send hundreds of more troops to Syria and Iraq to engage in training, surveillance, and intelligence work; they would provide support to both Kurdish and Arab rebel forces in Syria. The other alternative, of course, is that the negotiations fail and the Obama administration concludes that, as a matter of national self-interest, it must take the lead in supporting the mainstream rebels and organizing support among its coalition partners, demonstrating to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Iranians that Assad has no long-term prospect of remaining even as master of a rump state in western Syria. At some point, the coalition would also have to establish a no-fly zone that would allow rebels to move eastward from Aleppo to the Islamic State-held city of Manbij and then on to Raqqa. This would, of course, require some very tough diplomacy with Russia, which until now has largely had its way in Syria.
Maybe there’s another, better way. But if it’s true that the rebels are not an impediment to the war against the Islamic State but rather a powerful potential ally, we have to treat them that way. In the face of the impending talks, they have proved far more organized and coherent than they have been in the past, banding together behind a former Syrian military leader to form the High Negotiations Committee. It would be wonderful if everyone could get together at Geneva and agree on a collective good. But just in case that doesn’t happen, we need to be ready with Plan B.
Photo credit: AMER ALMOHIBANY/AFP/Getty Images