A new approach to Syria

There are no easy answers here but there may in fact be a plausible path forward — a strategy that, if Washington were to adopt it, could assuage many Turkish concerns and lead to gradual progress in the campaign to put real military pressure on both ISIL and the Bashar al-Assad regime. The first element of the new strategy begins with a more realistic framing of the military goals of the international coalition opposing both Assad and ISIL. Washington must take the lead on this. The starting point is to begin with a vision for the future of Syria based on a confederation.

Declaring such a goal could help reconcile, or at least “de-conflict,” American and Turkish views on the conflict. By now, it must be clear that aspiring to a strong successor government to the Assad regime is hoping for a miracle. Even if such a government could be constructed on paper, what army is going to give it authority? A confederal model for Syria, though still ambitious, could help reduce the chasm between ends and means, making the strategy more credible.

A weak central government, tying together various separate sectors of the country that are governed and protected by their own autonomous institutions, makes much more sense. A confederation doesn’t mean the partitioning of Syria. In fact, a confederal solution is probably the best way to avoid disintegration. Such a concept could, among its other virtues, provide an outlet for Assad (he could go into internal exile in the future Alawite sector of the country). It could cap any aspirations among Kurds for self-rule well short of the possible goal of independence — the latter being something that Ankara would find fundamentally unacceptable. It could also provide a viable path forward for Russia as principal protector of the Alawite sector in a future peacekeeping mission, after an eventual negotiated settlement.

As for the specific matter of the Kurds, additional steps are needed. The PKK needs to commit to not employing violence against Turkey any longer — not now, not in the future. But it can be given a new role for those of its fighters seeking to stand up for their own people in a responsible way: as part of the Kurdish opposition within Syria. The PKK can be allowed safe passage into northern Syria, where its fighters can join the Democratic Union Party (PYD) militia there. They can help take on ISIL in support of the campaign now being envisioned against Raqqa as well as other missions. In return for the PKK’s demilitarization in Turkish territories, Ankara should immediately restart negotiations with the organization and this time quickly deliver on its promises of democratic reforms and a new constitution.

There is one more key piece to this: American special forces would need to be deployed on the ground too, further building on the very modest but welcome decision to deploy several dozen Americans into northern Syria. The Kurdish zone in Syria is reasonably well-established, so the risks associated with this move are likely manageable. The special forces would help further recruit, train, equip and advise these fighters as they work with nearby Arab units to prepare the next steps in the war. In addition to strengthening the Kurdish forces, the Americans would help monitor the custodianship of any weapons that were delivered to these units to help ensure they are not taken back into Turkey. The American commitment would have to be open-ended, until the conflict could be brought to a reasonable settlement. But it would not be large.

None of this is easy or particularly appealing. But neither is any dimension of the Syrian war. Right now, it is a war we are collectively losing. We need a new path forward, and the starting point has to be one that Turkey and the United States can truly rally together behind.