The time has come to accept that there are only bad options in Syria, and to choose the least tragic one. It entails accepting the call of the Assad regime -and its allies, Russia and Iran--to negotiate a political settlement. The most that one can hope for, at this point, is that (a) Syria will be divided among the various warring factions, but (b) the civil war will stop, and (c) the refugee crisis will abate. If at the same time, we could get the Iraqi government to live up to its repeated promises to stop abusing Sunnis (asking for them to be given a fair share may well be a bridge too far), even ISIS may be forced to join the negotiations.
To proceed requires the US and its allies to give up on two fantasies: first of all, that the US will be able to find a liberal, secular, pro-Western group--or at least a "moderate" one-- whose fighters it could train into a force that would defeat all the others. We just witnessed the embarrassing results of the last US attempt to train Syrians: only few completed the training, and once they reached Syria, they were ambushed, shot, kidnapped, or went missing.
Second, the US had best give up on insisting that Assad depart as a precondition for the negotiations. Ceasefire talks are unlikely to proceed if one demands that the leader of one of the major parties give up his post. Moreover, it is naïve to think that if Assad resigns, some more acceptable persona will assume power. Even if the US could influence who that is going to be-- the US record of choosing leaders is rather poor, to put it mildly. In Iraq, the US first favored the exiled politician and disgraced banker Ahmed Chalabi, an ineffective leader who provided false information about Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction. After Iraq's 2010 parliamentary election resulted in a slim victory for Ayad Allawi, a Shiite politician whose bloc included both Sunnis and Shiites, the US pushed Allawi aside in favor of Iran's preferred candidate, Nouri al-Malaki, whom we had supported since 2006. Maliki's authoritarian rule and abuse of Iraqi Sunnis is a major reason the world now must contend with ISIS, and that Iraq is falling under the growing influence of Iran. In Afghanistan, the US for years supported Hamid Karzai, who on his best day was unstable and presided over a very corrupt and ineffectual government.
True, Assad and company are allied with Iran and Russia. But the US just showed the world that it can negotiate with Iran and reach a deal with implications much more loaded with risks than how much of Syria will be governed by whom. We may as well let Iran be at the table one more time. As for Russia, one notes that one of the best thing that happened in this part of the world over the last five years was getting the Syrian government to give up, in the middle of a war, practically all its chemical weapons. This unprecedented breakthrough was achieved when the US and Russia collaborated. Granted, Russia seems to be increasing its military support to the Assad regime. One should note, though, that it has provided such support for decades. To warn Russia, as the White House did, that its increased support for Assad could "risk confrontation" with the US and its allies is an unfortunate move. These are hollow threats, which undermine US credibility. At the same time, these threats leave the US on a collision course with Russia, which is extremely unlikely to give up on its last remaining ally in the Middle East and where it has a major naval base. Instead we should cooperate again with Russia to bring an end to the civil war, the bloodshed and destruction, and the refugee crisis. If this means that the Assad regime will survive in some parts of Syria, that is a less troubling outcome than allowing the war to rage on.
Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University and the author of Security First and most recently Privacy in the Cyber Age. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. To subscribe to his monthly newsletter, send an e-mail to email@example.com.