“We have no dog in that fight,” U.S. Secretary of State James Baker famously said on the eve of the wars that would tear through former Yugoslavia, ultimately claiming more than a hundred thousand lives and, in Bosnia alone, displacing half the population. Convinced that the United States had no strategic interest in the messy Balkan conflicts, he and his successor quickly assembled arguments to keep the Bush administration and then the Clinton administration from intervening to stop the carnage. Anxieties about “ancient tribal hatreds” and “another Vietnam quagmire” led to a half-hearted policy that didn’t change until nearly four years later when President Bill Clinton grasped the strategic dimensions of the conflict and, with force and diplomacy, brought the war in Bosnia to an end.
Four years into the war in Syria, with more than 200,000 dead, half the country displaced and a refugee crisis in Europe, U.S. President Barack Obama finds himself at a similar inflection point. Forced by events —and a public challenge from Russian President Vladimir Putin—to recognize that Washington’s Syria policy has failed, the administration remains paralyzed by its self-defeating narratives. Convinced that force against the regime in Damascus is useless and committed to diplomacy as a virtue in and of itself, Obama, his advisers, and many outside analysts have either lost their way or run out of ideas.
The crux of the Syria problem is straightforward: how to simultaneously address the threat posed by the Islamic State (also called ISIS) and other radical Sunni factions while grappling with the fact that the primary culprit for the violence remains the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad. At the United Nations this week, Putin offered a plan to address the former while doing nothing about the latter. “We think it is an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces who are valiantly fighting terrorism,” implored Putin.
The real mistake would be to go along with Putin’s Ultimate success against ISIS will only come when a critical mass of Sunnis rises up to join the fight. The United States belatedly grasped this fact in Iraq, finally pressuring Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to leave office as a way of reaching out to Sunnis. Although a full Sunni awakening has yet to reoccur, the elements are at least in place to produce one. Yet somehow, the United States imagines that the same equation does not hold true in Syria, where Sunnis constitute the vast majority. It should be clear that a policy of joining arms, even indirectly through Moscow, with the arch-nemesis of Syria’s Sunni majority in a bid to defeat ISIS is doomed.
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