The story of Syria’s crisis to date can be summarized in large measure by the discipline and determination of Iran and Russia. They have focused rigidly on sustaining Bashar al-Assad in power. They have wanted to keep their client in the saddle far more than the United States and others have wanted to unhorse him. The result has been catastrophic, not only for Syria and its people, but for the entire region. Assad’s murderous response to peaceful protest—a response laced with sectarianism—begat the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). And ISIS, not content with trying to destroy in Syria the non-jihadist opposition to Assad, now feasts on Iraq. As it reaps the unintended consequences of a detached Syria policy, how (if at all) can the United States and its allies reverse the catastrophe by creating some favorable facts?

President Barack Obama can build a solid foundation for a successful Syria policy by persuading himself on two key matters: Syria is vitally important, and the United States—at the head of a coalition—can make a decisive difference without invading and occupying the country. The president’s doubts on both scores have not been state secrets: he has articulated them in several interviews. He has declined to consider seriously policy alternatives offered inside and outside of government. Instead he has contented himself with dismissive caricatures of critics, often focusing on a single element of a multifaceted alternative strategy (such as arming nationalist rebels) and asking rhetorically if Assad would be gone today had he done it two years ago. Now he has seemingly changed course, asking Congress for $500 million to train and equip rebel fighters. Does he believe in what he is doing? And can it create the requisite facts?

The first question can be answered authoritatively by one person: certainly not the author of this article. Perhaps President Obama sees in the ISIS Iraq rampage the justification for adopting a long-term strategy in Syria focusing on a governmental alternative to that which has long been a government in name only: the Assad regime. Yet the preliminary indicators are not good. The fact-sheet and announcement covering the $500 million request for equipping and training selected Syrian rebel forces fell far short of being inspirational or even instructive. Reports of resistance to the initiative in the Department of Defense suggest that the appropriation requested was not arrived at in a manner involving a clear command decision by the president accompanied by explicit guidance. Suffice it to say that if an ISIS-in-Iraq, check-the-box exercise is all we have—one featuring a disinterested passing of the buck to Congress—then nothing will be accomplished beyond preserving a policy of words and empty gestures.

Can a genuine change of course create positive facts in Syria and the region? One cannot deny that valuable time has been squandered: time used by Iran and Russia to preserve Assad in his palace, even as the Syrian state degenerated into a cesspool of top-to-bottom criminality. Some observers deem Assad the victor and say the international community should rebuild the structure he has burned down, leaving the arsonist himself in charge. Others see the Assad-Makhluf clan and their enablers as serial arsonists, and consider the current tactical situation as the inevitable artificial product of a temporarily one-sided battle.

If a genuine change of course is happening, then the challenge for the United States and its partners will be to stabilize the tactical situation inside Syria while building a disciplined, combat effective Syrian national army outside the country. Neither part of this task will be easy.

In the near-term the Assad regime will likely target ISIS only to the extent required by Iran for a show of solidarity. Tehran knows all too well the importance of ISIS to the Assad regime in Syria, even as ISIS challenges a pillar of Iranian national security in Iraq. For the regime to go all out against ISIS in Syria would be to risk neutralizing a collaborator in the destruction of their common nationalist opponents. This may not be an easy balancing act for Iran: it needs ISIS dead in Iraq and alive in Syria, where Assad’s survival is deemed essential by Tehran for the combat readiness of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Any attempt by the United States and its partners to stabilize the situation in Syria to the benefit of the nationalist opposition will have to assume not only continued barrel bombing and starvation sieges by the regime, but assassinations and military assaults by ISIS.

In the longer term, there is no way to avoid fully the unintended consequences of lost time. Even with full Congressional cooperation and expert executive branch implementation driven by a sense of operational urgency, it is hard to imagine significant numbers of fully trained soldiers entering Syria in under a year. Bear in mind that this force—which will require significant training in civil military operations and civilian protection as well as conventional tactical skills—will have a pacification and stabilization mission aimed ultimately at destroying two sets of transnational criminals and expelling the foreign elements supporting each. This will be a huge task, one that could have been underway now had the proper decisions been taken in the past. For a mission this complex, however, shortcuts can be fatal.

Those who argue that Assad has won also argue that efforts to aid nationalist rebels only gratuitously prolong the suffering of the Syrian people: that Saudis, Qataris, Turks, and yes, Americans, are willing to fight to the last Syrian rather than tell the rebels that it is all over. If there were any evidence at all that Assad and the organizational elements of the crime wave he has unleashed were willing to introduce aspects of dignity, justice, and mercy into their behavior, then the tactical gains bought by Hezbollah and other Iranian-raised militias might have strategic consequences. Yes, the United States and its partners could, if they wished, starve the nationalist opposition into submission. Yet no one should expect the result of submission to be peace, as door-to-door visits inevitably take over from barrel bombs.

For those Syrians seeking liberation from two sets of rapacious criminal organizations, the facts on the ground are grim. Whether the United States and its partners can create different, better facts is not known, and certainly not guaranteed. If the Obama administration wants guarantees, it need only adhere to its longstanding Syria policy. It will not like the results, but by early 2017 it will be someone else’s problem.

Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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