This piece was co-authored by Chester Crocker, the James R. Schlesinger Professor of Strategic Studies at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service. Read the full article at The National Interest.
With the second round of Syrian peace talks in recent weeks about to take place in Vienna, the United States and other participants need to raise their sights from a narrow focus on the specific modalities of a negotiation between the antagonists to incorporate a broader strategy for confronting the underlying dynamics of this entangled conflict. Unless these underlying dynamics become central to a strategy, it is unlikely that a diplomatic track will bring the Syrian civil war to a halt. Confronting these dynamics should be the focus of U.S. and Western policy, and the basis for exploring whether the Russians and Iranians can be levered into playing parallel, constructive roles.
One of the primary underlying dynamics that needs to be addressed before settlement terms can even be set is the battle over competing ideas. In fact, to make matters even more convoluted, there are actually two battles for ideas raging at once. The first is being waged by ISIS in the northeast part of the country (and in Iraq). In this battle, ISIS is trying to smash the idea of Syria and a Syrian national identity. The idea that they are trying to propagate is not just that Syria has ceased to be a viable going concern, but also that it is illegitimate. By wresting away Syria’s most vital border crossings with Iraq, it is reinforcing the narrative that the boundaries set through the treaties of Sevres in 1920 and Lausanne in 1923, when the Ottoman Empire was dismembered (based partly on earlier secret dealings between the British and French), are artificial, illegitimate and deserving of being destroyed. It is also battling the idea of Syria and Iraq by sowing Sunni-Shia tensions, thereby destroying any basis for nationalist cohesion within society that could possibly rise up and pose a challenge to the harsh reality of ISIS’s Salafist, jihadist variant of a Sunni caliphate. This ISIS creed is a critical challenge to be overcome: keeping alive the idea of Syria as a viable entity—even on life support—is a necessary exit ramp for this conflict, just as the negation of Syria (and Iraq) has been instrumental in recruiting and mobilizing ISIS followers in the first place.