Terms of Engagement

The Syrian Game-Changer

Why the shocking rise of al Qaeda is scrambling the war, ripping up the playbook, and turning enemies into partners.

By , a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy.
Guillaume Briquet/AFP/Getty Images
Guillaume Briquet/AFP/Getty Images

Earlier this week, Foreign Policy invited me to participate in its Syria "PeaceGame," a role-playing exercise co-hosted with the U.S. Institute of Peace and designed to look for ways to bring a political solution to the war. Having vowed some while ago to stop writing about Syria for lack of anything even remotely hopeful to say, I thought I should at least see if others were less despairing than I was. No such luck: The overwhelming majority of the 45 participants — many of them, unlike me, actual experts — agreed that there was no meaningful prospect of a solution which would satisfy the most basic concerns of the rebels. Nevertheless, the exercise forced us to contemplate whatever tiny openings might be worth exploring.

Our moderator, FP CEO David Rothkopf, offered a crisp summation of our collective view: There was no prospect of ending the savage stalemate without forceful diplomatic (or military) intervention by outside actors, but all of the external players had found that they could live quite well with the status quo. For this reason, the most obvious analogies to Syria’s sectarian civil war — Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s, the Balkans in the 1990s — do not apply, because in those cases an outsider (Syria in the first instance, the United States and NATO in the second) ultimately concluded that the violence represented an unacceptable threat to their interests.

The regime’s growing strength gives its chief backers, Russia and Iran, no reason to push for concessions. The Sunni states who support the rebels, chiefly Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, are deeply unhappy with the current state of affairs, but unable or unwilling to do anything likely to tip the current balance of forces. And the United States, too, seems quite content to live with the status quo. Just take a look at President Barack Obama’s speech last week at Brookings. Obama barely bothered to mention Syria, and he did so only to express satisfaction at the progress of the effort to remove chemical weapons. This is, of course, an unambiguously good thing, but it was never even among the administration’s objectives in Syria before the Russians seized on the issue as a means to forestall an America attack.

The current and former senior Administration officials who spoke this week at an FP conference — Deputy National Security Advisor Antony Blinken, former National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Secretary of State John Kerry — all described the weapons deal as a fundamental diplomatic breakthrough. Yet none explained how a transaction requiring the cooperation of the Assad regime could ultimately lead to the weakening of the regime — for the simple reason that it can’t. I don’t doubt that White House officials are agonized over the suffering in Syria, but they are also prisoners of their past decisions.

What’s more, the White House strategy of building up moderate rebel groups so that the Syrian regime will have no choice but to reach a deal with them has now become hopelessly threadbare. Those groups, enfeebled both by infighting and by the absence of consistent support, were unable to defend their own storehouse of American-donated non-lethal goods against an attack by the rival Islamist Front earlier this week. The United States responded by cutting off non-lethal aid, thus deepening the group’s marginalization. The administration had hoped that at the planned meeting of Geneva II next month, the rebels could present an inclusive slate of Syrian leaders as an alternative to the Assad clan. That scenario, never plausible, now looks less likely than the splintering of rebel forces and the disintegration of their very shaky leadership.

If Geneva is not to deliver some miraculous deus ex machina, then we can forget about a political solution in the short term. This forces the question of what more remote events might upset Russian or Iranian satisfaction with the status quo. Put otherwise, what could turn Syria into something more like Lebanon or Bosnia — places that seem dreadful compared to anywhere, save Syria?

The participants in the PeaceGame, prospecting for sources of hope, speculated that a breakthrough on nuclear talks with Iran might produce tectonic shifts in the region, with a more cooperative Iran prepared to rethink its support for Assad and a more pragmatic Saudi Arabia prepared to talk to the Iranians about deescalating tensions between Sunnis and Shiites. But even a less implacably hostile Iran is not going to be abandoning its revolutionary foreign policy anytime soon. Antony Blinken responded to a question on the subject by saying, "I don’t put a lot of stock into a positive answer, but we should test it." He added that any American attempt to add regional issues to the nuclear talks risked losing America’s negotiating partners.

Blinken mentioned a much more negative development, the ever-tightening grip of foreign jihadists over the major towns and cities of northern Syria which had, he said, "begun to concentrate the minds of critical actors outside of Syria." The Russians, Blinken suggested, "have a profound interest in avoiding the emergence of an extremist Syria." If the Russians conclude that Assad’s continued presence is leading, not to restored stability, but to a vacuum that al Qaeda will fill, perhaps they’ll be more inclined to dump Syria’s ruler.

I ran this theory past an official at the conference who was familiar with and sympathetic to the Russian position. "I heard that too," he said. "But he wasn’t talking about Russia; he was talking about Saudi Arabia and Qatar." Responsibility for the rise of extremists, he said, lies not with Assad but with the Gulf support for those extremists.

In short, don’t count on Russia any more than on Iran. Washington does, however, have leverage with the Saudis. Administration officials say that the Saudis have begun to acknowledge that the rebellion has slipped from their control. The United States thus may be able to persuade Saudi Arabia and Qatar to end state support for extremists (though the far larger flow of private funds will be harder to choke off). Turkey may be prepared to do more to prevent foreign jihadists from crossing its southeastern border into Syria. And if one of the hundreds of Western jihadists now in Syria perpetrates a terrorist attack in the United States or Europe, as the administration now considers almost inevitable, the West will begin looking at Syria less as a human rights nightmare than as a new front in the war on al Qaeda. Just as eliminating chemical weapons has supplanted the goal of ending Assad’s brutality, so the dynamic of the war on terror may soon supplant both.

Such a development would, in fact, constitute Assad’s supreme triumph. Syria’s strongman has always described the conflict as a war between secularism and extremism. It wasn’t at first; but now, thanks in part to his cynical decision to release hardened extremists from jail in 2012, it is. Assad could thus become the lesser of two evils — not only for the West but for many Syrians, who loathe and fear the holy warriors even more than they do the regime. Rebel leaders and activists I spoke to when I was in the border area in October told me that Salafists had formed the Islamist Front in order to counter the growing influence of the foreigners gathered under the banner of the Islamic States of Iraq and Syria, who were
quite happy to destroy Syria in the name of their eschatological crusade to restore the caliphate.

The growing strength of ISIS is the development most likely to scramble existing alignments. Nowhere else in the world has al Qaeda gained control over a heavily populated, urbanized space. The United States may have to make common cause with the Salafists. The Gulf states may agree to work with the moderate rebels’ military and political command. Some moderate brigades may even make common cause with the regime. It’s a game-changer. But there’s one game it won’t change: Assad’s monstrous crimes against his own people. Nothing, save surrrender, is likely to put that to an end.

James Traub is a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.