President-elect Donald J. Trump believes, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend." He suggests the United States cooperate with Syria and Russia to destroy the Islamic State. Aligning with Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and Russia's Vladimir Putin would have the exact opposite effect. It would entrench Assad's opponents and radicalize Syria's Sunni majority. The Islamic State would intensify its worldwide recruitment, making the US more vulnerable.
Two wars are simultaneously underway in Syria. Syrian Democratic Forces (SDS) are taking territory previously held by the Islamic State (ISIS). The SDS includes 50,000 Kurdish fighters, People's Protection Units (YPG). The SDS and YPG are engaged in fierce fighting as they advance on Raqqa, the de facto ISIS capitol.
The other is between Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and Sunni rebels, which the US has supported with training and weapons. Assad is winning this war. Moderate rebels are desperately defending their families and homes in Aleppo from the Syria-Russia onslaught. Under siege, they are finding common cause with more radical Sunni groups such as Al-Sham.
Abandoning moderate Syrian rebels would be a strategic blunder. If the US suspends assistance, other regional powers will fill the gap. Salafism will prevail. US leverage will be diminished both on the battlefield and when the parties move to negotiations.
The US should not be on the wrong side of history. Assad is responsible for killing approximately 450,000 Syrians and driving at least 11 million from their homes. Russia has targeted civilians, schools, and hospitals in Aleppo.
Despite Russia's war crimes, the US and Russia can cooperate by more effectively sharing information on target selection that actually degrades ISIS, sparing civilians and moderate opposition.Guiding principles should govern Washington's engagement with groups on the ground. The US could deepen cooperation with Syrians who:
- Share our commitment to fighting terrorism, including the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.
- Believe that the only solution to Syria's civil war is through a political settlement.
- Commit to respect the territorial integrity of Syria.
- Demonstrate respect for human rights, pluralism, and inclusivity.
- Adhere to humanitarian principles, including international humanitarian law.
- Intensify pressure on the Islamic State, expanding assistance to Syrian Kurdish fighters and other Syrian Democratic Forces.
- Leverage relations with Putin, encouraging Russia to focus on jihadists rather than Syrian Democratic Forces.
- Broker a deal with Putin for a ceasefire in Aleppo, humanitarian access, and corridors for rebels to leave the city.
To kick-start negotiations, President-elect Trump should outline the scope of a deal ending Syria's civil war that envisions an end-state. Local authorities would be responsible for local security. Politics, economy, and control of resources would be decentralized.
Russia can be invited to join the United States and the United Nations as co-chair of political talks in Geneva. However, the US should be wary of more malevolent regional powers such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia who support proxies to advance their narrow national and sectarian interests.
Solving Syria's civil war will be the first order of business for the incoming Trump administration. The US should set a date for talks to start - and a deadline for a full and final agreement.
Ending Syria's long national nightmare would set a positive precedent for US global leadership.
David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as a Foreign Affairs Expert to the State Department's Near Eastern Affairs Bureau during the administration of President George W. Bush. He was also a senior adviser to the State Department under President Clinton and Obama.