The shooting down of a Russian SU-24 by Turkey on November 24 has ratcheted the Syrian crisis to a new level of urgency. This escalation, combined with the horrific attacks in Paris and the security situation still unfolding across Europe, is understandably dominating the news cycle. Amidst this tumult, however, the results of the Vienna Summit of November 14 have been largely buried. In truth, the downing of the Russian fighter and the massacre in Paris underscore the importance of looking again at what came out of the Vienna talks and what steps the U.S. should now be taking to bolster prospects for an eventual peace.
Minimum stability for Syria and the broader Middle East requires that a Syrian state entity emerge from the war and that the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) be eliminated. If there is good news, it is that all the nations at the Vienna talks on November 14 agreed on these two points. They also agreed to begin formal negotiations on January 1, 2016. They pledged to work for a ceasefire, and to agree within six months on a process for fair internal governance and the drafting a new constitution. Finally, the parties committed to free and fair elections within 18 months. No one is predicting this timetable will hold, but it is a point of departure that at least allows the harder work to commence.
A number of realities have brought the parties to this point. Armed opposition groups need a political process to validate their legitimacy, and Assad would gain a reprieve from outright collapse. The state players do not benefit from a continuing war either and have an incentive to stay involved in the peace talks. Russia’s intervention bought it a more prominent role in the negotiations. The recent nuclear deal opened the door for Tehran to take a seat at the table. With Iran in, the Saudis cannot afford not to be active. Iraq can play its two allies—Iran and the United States—against each other to get more military support against ISIS, and even flirt with Moscow to drive up bids from Tehran and Washington. Meanwhile Turkey, still intent on being an independent actor in the face of pressure to align more clearly with the U.S. effort, is searching for a more prominent role in resolving the crisis.
There are genuine obstacles, however. Ankara for now is unwilling to commit its army to destroying ISIS and unable to gain momentum to overthrow Assad, set up a no fly zone, or manage the refugee flow into and out of Turkey. The Saudis and the Gulf states have stopped flying missions against ISIS after being drawn away to a war in Yemen that is not going well. Egypt’s stance is to support Assad, and the Jordanians have the difficult task of recommending which of the warring groups should be included in the Vienna negotiations. The Europeans, without an army or a refugee policy, must placate Turkey with money and concessions on the EU membership process. And the Americans are caught in a pre-Vietnam scenario, trying to do enough to show commitment but avoid becoming entangled in the fifth war in the region since 2001. Mr. Putin has reacted harshly to the loss of the Soviet fighter; getting Turkey and Russia onto the same page may now be much more difficult.
Even with difficulties, however, the combination of Paris and Vienna now has shifted the momentum toward the destruction of ISIS. There is a sharper recognition that no peace will come to Syria as long as ISIS exists. The absolutism of ISIS actually strengthens the opposition and minimizes the risk that the group will play opponents against one another. This leaves all the other parties free to fashion a strategy to eliminate the Islamic State.
What should the United States do now in the international arena to strengthen the campaign against ISIS?
First, it should seize the opportunity to strengthen its opposition to Assad’s continuing presence during the settlement negotiations. Washington must make it abundantly clear to Moscow and Tehran that ISIS will continue to draw support as long as Assad’s future is unclear. He is a dead weight on the peace effort, and Paris has helped to crystallize the importance of his quick departure.
Second, the United States must expand the air war to the next set of vulnerable ISIS targets. This was not politically palatable before Paris, but now it is, preferably with the participation of France and the UK, and in cooperation with the Russians, if such a scenario is still possible.
Third, the United States should exert further financial pressures against ISIS and the Syrian regime; if there are any means to attack them financially that we have not fully utilized, now is the time to use them. It is not possible that we have exhausted all means to hurt ISIS financially.
Fourth, make clear to Ankara that three steps are essential for it to contribute to combatting ISIS: closing every single gate that ISIS controls on the Syrian border (as Turkey has verbally committed to doing); accepting more robust U.S. air and logistical support for the Syrian Kurdish rebels; and accelerating the crackdown on ISIS networks and cells within Turkey, which it has only recently begun to take through still inadequate measures. There needs to be a rebalancing which puts more attention on Turkey’s willingness to join the fight and less on telling others what they should be doing.
Fifth, the Administration should use Congressional reluctance to take in Syrian refugees to leverage further support to refugees still in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. The United States is already the largest single international donor supporting the refugees, and could also take a leadership role in pushing other regional donors who don’t share a border with Syria to do more. This should weigh heavily on everyone’s minds as winter’s approach brings even more hardship to the camps.
Sixth, President Obama should deliver a major address to the American people explaining fully what we are going to do now and why and doing so in a way that is consistent with our long history of being the indispensable global power in the effort to build a safer and more secure world.
President Obama has taken major initiatives with the aim of reforming the U.S. health system, to recover from the worst economic setback in 70 years, to end two wars, to expand trade to unprecedented levels, and to create a more just American society. All this is said to be for the long run, to preserve American leadership for the next decades. Syria and the failure to act when we had the means to do so could well become part of that legacy if he does not step up to this challenge. The framework reached in Vienna gives us a new start on the diplomatic track. Paris represents a critical opportunity to focus all efforts on ISIS, the absolute priority if we are to achieve a settlement in Syria. It’s a moment we cannot afford to let pass.