As President Obama has suggested, confronting the threat of the Islamic States in Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS) in Syria will be far harder and more complex than responding to the ISIS challenge in Iraq. This is primarily because of the convergent interests and threat perceptions among the United States, the new central government in Baghdad, the Kurds, the Gulf States, and Turkey when it comes to Iraq. With unprecedented unanimity, these actors have agreed on a period of U.S. airstrikes against ISIS in support of Iraqi and Kurdish operations on the ground, on rebuilding a more inclusive Iraqi government, and on increasing local governance while protecting the territorial integrity of Iraq.
By contrast, when it comes to Syria, there is no consensus view on where the threat of ISIS fits into the overall political solution to the crisis. ISIS holds approximately a third of Syrian territory, with the rest under regime control or contested militarily, including by a mosaic of jihadi groups often with different sets of patrons in Turkey and in the Arab world. These groups, and the non-Islamist Free Syrian Army, are fighting each other even as they fight the regime. Meanwhile, Assad believes he has successfully convinced his neighbors of his indispensability. He will try to take advantage of international efforts against ISIS to reclaim his legitimacy.
It’s time for the U.S. government to force a discussion of the broader Syrian end game. The United States should encourage Turkey and the Arab Gulf states to agree on a number of principles that will guide Syrian conflict resolution: de-escalation among the conflicting parties, de-centralization of power away from the regime through a protracted transition process, and diffusion of the sectarianism fueling the fighting. In short, the U.S. must ensure that the Arab Gulf States and Turkey give up any maximalist visions of a future, Sunni-dominant Syria.