“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.

A damaged military vehicle is seen along a road in Freikeh village after fighters from an alliance of insurgents known as the "Army of Fatah" (Islamic Conquest) took control of the village from forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Idlib
A damaged military vehicle in Syria, July 30, 2015.
Ammar Abdullah / Reuters
The real mistake would be to go along with Putin’s approach. As the United States learned twice in Iraq (with the success of the surge and with the current flagging effort against ISIS), outside actors have only limited power against Sunni extremists. 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.

There’s a better way to address the problem: finally give the Sunnis of Syria—even those who have joined the extremists out of desperation—an affirmative reason to join in the fight against ISIS. The administration must put forward a Syria peace plan, produced in consultation with key allies, which finally addresses the core issues of the conflict, including how much power Sunnis should have; who will control the all-important security services; whether Syria will be a unitary or federal state; how and when will the constitution be written; how, when, and in what sequence local and national elections will be held; who will provide security and other assistance to the parties if they accept the terms; and what protections will there be for non-Sunni minorities, in particular, for once-ruling Alawis.

Up to now, international diplomacy has avoided answering such questions. Instead, the Geneva-UN mantra, agreed to by the major parties including the United States and Russia on June 30, 2012, has been that “It is for the Syrian people to determine the future of the country.” This high-minded phrase ignores the fact that many of the Syrian people, primarily Sunnis, are locked in a struggle for survival against a regime that has continued to use chemical weapons against them. The notion that, with a bit of cajoling from Moscow, Assad would join in a serious dialogue leading to a negotiated transition is folly. Indeed, the Geneva II meetings of December 2013 and January 2014, held after months of supplication of the Russians by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, proved it. The talks achieved no movement toward serious dialogue.

Expecting the sides to agree to dialogue before peace terms have been proposed is putting the cart before the horse. Instead, a defined concept of what peace would actually look like—of what a successor Syrian state would look like—is an essential, if not sufficient, ingredient for peace. For example, the core element of the Dayton agreement that ended the war in Bosnia, the country’s 51/49 territorial split, was well known to the parties before they ever set foot in Ohio.

Now is the time to create a real peace plan that would shape the future Syria by finally giving Alawites and other minorities who cling to the regime out of fear a reason to consider ditching the dictator. Their place, too, would be spelled out in the new Syria, along with at least the outline of an international security effort to police former battle lines and vulnerable areas.

Proffering a peace plan is far less daunting than it sounds. Years of consultation with the various Syrian factions and the government have already illuminated the core issues. Ample lessons, good and bad, can be applied from Iraq, Lebanon, and Tunisia, as well as from the Balkans. The plan need not supply every detail. Indeed, in some places it can offer up options for the parties to choose from. What the plan must do, at a minimum, is address the existential concerns of the Alawites, the Sunni opposition, Christians, Kurds, and Palestinians.

ISIS, the al-Nusra front, and other radical Sunni Islamists will reject the deal out of hand. This is all to the good, exposing them as spoilers whose actions are inimical to the wider Sunni cause. It will become rapidly evident that ISIS offers no compelling vision for Sunnis other than continued war without hope of ever vanquishing Assad.

Getting buy-in to the terms from neighbors such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia will be a challenge, but far from impossible. Ankara and Riyadh are as weary and worried about the fighting as any party. Likewise, the desperation of European countries makes them poised for U.S. leadership on Syria, if only Washington will provide it. Just as Moscow has back-footed Washington with its regional anti-ISIS intelligence sharing plan, so the administration can return the favor with its joint regional-European Syria peace plan.

Migrants  walk towards the Austrian border from Hegyeshalom, Hungary September 28, 2015.
Migrants walk towards the Austrian border from Hegyeshalom, Hungary September 28, 2015.
Leonhard Foeger / Reuters

Moscow’s recent military escalation in Syria has done Washington a favor, puncturing the illusion that Kerry’s vaunted relationship with his counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, will produce any meaningful cooperation in Syria. The truth is that with the deal over Iran’s nuclear program done, with the mission in Afghanistan vastly scaled down, and with Putin laboring under lower than $50-a-barrel oil, the United States has rarely needed Russia less or had less cause to fear it. Real diplomacy will be possible when Moscow—and Tehran—sense a strategic shift in Washington. A peace plan concocted with European allies and with Turkey is the first step. A trans-Atlantic condominium over Syria will always portend Russia and Iran’s worst fear—an eventual NATO-led intervention leading to regime change. 

Why hasn’t the United Nations or any other party, including the Arab League, put forward a peace plan so far? The answer is partly lack of imagination and partly fear (or rather certainty) that the plan would be rejected by one or all parties. But that risk must be balanced against the risks of continuing on the current, utterly moribund diplomatic course. A peace plan would at least set some parameters, spark debate and goad the parties into addressing themselves to the hard, practical choices needed to end the war. In time, Moscow and even Tehran might come to see the wisdom of it.

Putting forward a peace plan for Syria is surely a better option than a devil’s bargain with the Russians that is unlikely to dampen enthusiasm for ISIS while costing the United States its remaining vestiges of good will among the region’s Sunnis. Without a vision for what Syria will actually look like when the fighting ends, the fighting may simply never end.

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  • EDWARD P. JOSEPH is Executive Director of the Institute of Current World Affairs and Senior Fellow and Lecturer at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies
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