White House officials have confirmed that Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin, meeting in Antalya at the G20 summit, have just agreed to “a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political transition.” But since Russian involvement in Syria to date has threatened not to alleviate but to deepen the conflict, any Russian-American rapprochement must be shaped to avoid the indiscriminate bombings of all anti-Assad forces that Russia has conducted up till now. If, however, allowing Putin to take some credit for a solution can help bring the Assad regime to the bargaining table, all to the good. But for an effort to “eliminate” the Islamic State and to bring about a “peaceful transition” in Syria (Obama’s words in Antalya), we need to conduct the negotiations with a game plan radically different from the one guiding Russian—and indeed American—policy thus far.
As the sickening Paris massacre compels Obama to reconsider the U.S. approach to the Syrian conflict, we should take heed of the title of the most cited French study on the threat posed by the Islamic state, “The ISIS Trap” (“Le piège Daech”), by Middle Eastern specialist Pierre-Jean Luizard. We need to ask: Was November 13 a trap, designed to draw us into a self-defeating response? How can we avoid giving those who inspired and organized the attacks exactly what they want? Inside France, the ISIS trap is easier to identify than to avoid. As Harleen Gambhir writes in The Washington Post, an anti-Muslim backlash by Europeans is sure to drive more jobless and marginalized Muslim youth into violent extremism.
But what trap is being set for us?
As horrific as the Syrian civil war is, ill-considered U.S. actions, triggered by a need to hit back, could still make matters worse. Fear and anger are poor counselors. Our aim, formulated with a cool head, must be to combine lethality with discrimination. A ramped-up attack on ISIS must above all avoid looking like an indiscriminate war on the Sunni nationalists in Syria and Iraq who justifiably refuse to live under Iranian-controlled governments in Damascus and Baghdad.
The temptation of insufficiently discriminating lethality is the trap set for us by the November 13 terrorists and into which we absolutely must not fall. The challenge is daunting given ISIS’s success at recruiting Sunni fighters and controlling areas populated with Sunni civilians. But it should also be possible, given the natural desire of the local population to free themselves of swarms of foreign killers with no historical connection to the place. In any case, giving ISIS a recruitment bonanza by lending de facto American support to expanding Iranian influence in the region will simply add fuel to the already raging fire.
By taking sides with Assad, Putin has managed to make Obama look indecisive and vacillating. But as it becomes more engaged, the United States must not take sides in a Sunni-Shiite civil war. That would play into ISIS’s hands. Rather than allowing the conflict to breed more apocalyptic violence, we need to use the shock of Paris to bring the regional players (especially Tehran and Riyadh, but also Ankara and Cairo) into a common plan to obliterate ISIS. To achieve this aim, we need to combine whatever bold military action we take with even bolder concessions to the Sunni nationalists who have been supporting ISIS because it has seemed to be the only effective force capable of parrying Iranian-backed domination.
ISIS has grown virulent for many reasons. But an important contributing factor has been the willful blindness of the West. The United States in particular continues to operate according to the absurd fiction that Syria and Iraq still exist as coherent states. The West’s hopeless commitment to the territorial integrity of Syria and Iraq is a gift to ISIS, fomenting the belief in the region that we support the domination of Sunni Arabs by proxies of Iran.
This is why any military campaign to dismantle ISIS needs to be carried out with the clear understanding that we are now officially abandoning efforts to create “inclusive” governments in both Syria and Iraq. The time for reciting meaningless talking points is over. Some form of strong regional self-rule, shielding Sunnis from Iranian domination, must be our publicly announced goal. We don’t have to call it “partition” if the word offends. But only some kind of geographical division offers hope for bringing gradual stabilization to these tragically ravaged lands, and for giving Syrian refugees, who after Paris are bound to feel increasingly unwelcome in Europe, a home to which they can safely return.
Those who ordered the Paris atrocities want us to follow Putin, take Assad’s side, and leave local Sunni nationalists so desperate that they refuse to break ranks with transnational jihad. That is the ISIS trap into which the administration must aggressively refuse to fall.