Finally, the humanitarian crisis in war-torn Syria is getting the world’s attention. Unfortunately, as evidenced during this week’s United Nations General Assembly, there’s no international consensus on solutions, let alone the cause of the carnage.
President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin laid out starkly differing interpretations at the U.N. “Let’s remember how this started,” Obama told the assembled world leaders. “[Bashar] Assad reacted to peaceful protests by escalating repression and killing and in turn created the environment for the current strife” Obama said, referring to Syria’s homicidal president and the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL.
Putin posited that the key to defeating ISIL is a global coalition that includes Assad. “We think it is an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces, who are valiantly fighting terrorism face to face,” Putin told the delegates.
Putin is both morally and militarily wrong. Assad is not valiantly combating ISIL. He allowed its creation in a strategic bid to create an alternative even more grotesque than his discredited government. And Putin’s wrong to align Moscow with Damascus, Tehran and Baghdad, which stunned its U.S. ally by joining those nations in an intelligence-sharing coalition. Confirming Russia’s cynical ploy to protect Assad, the Pentagon said its initial airstrikes were on areas ISIL doesn’t control.
Obama did indicate a willingness to broaden the existing coalition. “The United States is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict,” he said. “But we must recognize that there cannot be, after so much carnage, a return to the prewar status quo.”
Obama is right to reject a solution that would reward Assad. Doing so would be a strategic and moral mistake that would alienate allies and exacerbate the catastrophe. “It would break up the coalition against ISIL and marginalize our relations with the Gulf states and much of the Arab world and would be a recruiting bonanza of incalculable value of the so-called caliph,” Frederic C. Hof, resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former ambassador for the transition in Syria, told an editorial writer. “If [ISIL] could reach out to the disaffected Sunni world and say, ‘Look at what I am up against — Iran, Russia, Assad and the United States,’ it would be the result [ISIL] is hoping and praying for.”
Those four nations, as well as Turkey, “hold the key” to a political solution in Syria, said U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who also called for the Syrian crisis to be referred to the International Criminal Court.
The only effective solution is some kind of negotiated settlement, which isn’t imminent despite the global attention. Previous paralysis by the Obama administration and Congress limits U.S. options. The U.S. policy should be to keep its coalition intact, and to focus on humanitarian efforts that save Syrian lives and keep the migration crisis from worsening. That’s hardly a solution, but until those who “hold the key” prioritize Syrian lives instead of geopolitics, the tragedy will continue.