OWL’S HEAD, Maine — President Barack Obama has backed himself into a corner. A US air attack against Syria has become necessary — but more in reaction to Obama's threats than to Bashar al-Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons.
It was just over a year ago that Obama made his forceful statement that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would cross a "red line" that would require a US response.
A few months ago, gas may have been used by Assad's military, but the evidence was inconclusive and the casualties small. Was Assad testing Obama? This time, the evidence is all but irrefutable, the death toll in the hundreds with thousands wounded.
It’s small compared to the more than 100,000 deaths, the majority civilian, in the 30-month-long civil war. But the death toll is irrelevant: the key factor requiring a US response is US credibility, which Obama unwisely put on the line.
Whatever military action we choose will have little impact on the actual war. The administration will try to get the UN Security Council to back an air attack, but Russia, a key Syrian ally, is unlikely to go along. Failing that, we'll at least get strong NATO backing, although maybe not from Sunni Arab countries, primarily Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbors who have long opposed Assad.
Overall, US military action will have no impact on what is the most dangerous aspect of the war in Syria. And that's not the use of chemical weapons.
It's the growing influence of the radical Islamist elements from neighboring Arab states and even beyond.
In the past few weeks, thousands of Syrian Kurds have crossed the northeastern border into Iraqi Kurdistan, escaping increased violence. Just a few months ago, Syrian Kurds appeared to have carved out their own autonomous province as Assad's military focused its efforts on Aleppo and the area from Damascus to Homs and the Mediterranean coast.
And, indeed, it's not the Syrian army that's driving the Kurds out: it's radical Islamists, such as the Nusra Front and other Al Qaeda types.
Neither Assad's army nor his government is the real threat in Syria today; it's the radical Sunnis, who are the best organized of the rebel groups and who could easily take over were Assad overthrown.
After the first hint that gas had been used against rebel villagers, Obama announced he would start sending increased supplies of arms to the rebel forces. Not much, if anything, has actually been sent, because of the very real concern that such arms would ultimately end up in the hands of jihadi groups rather than more moderate militias.
In fact, in the murky equation the US now faces in Syria, the one thing that is clear is that there is a worse scenario than Assad remaining in power: radical Sunni militias replacing him.
So the dilemma Obama faces is two-fold: what happens if, having backed himself into a credibility bind, military strikes have no impact and chemical weapons are used once again? And how, in any case, do we use military force, of whatever kind, against Assad without strengthening the Al Qaeda types, whose ultimate victory would be a much bigger disaster than a long-term stalemate that keeps Assad in power?
So what to do? Russia's interest in Assad is partially a continuation of the old Soviet Cold War approach to the US position in the Middle East; a pro-Russian government in Damascus means less American influence in the area. Beyond that, Russia has a real strategic interest in supporting Assad because of the access he has given the Russian navy to the port of Latakia. With Assad as an ally, Russia has Mediterranean access.
That can be a key element in getting the Russians on the US side. When the Syrian civil war began in early 2011, no one could foresee that Assad's downfall could lead to a failed state where Al Qaeda inspired groups would have free rein. Russia has its own concern about radical Islam; a post-Assad Syria with extremist elements in charge is as much anathema to them as to the US.
In May, Secretary of State John Kerry was discussing with the Russians convening a summit to seek a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war. At that time, the Russians were insisting that Assad, or his representatives, participate; the rebel forces in touch with the US and the West were equally adamant that the Assad government be excluded.
Things have changed. It's time the US let the Russians know that an acceptable outcome of those long-anticipated peace discussions would be a coalition in which the current Syrian government would not be excluded. It would also include "our" rebels, but not the radical Islamists.
The settlement would have to involve a timetable for elections that would be overseen by the UN. UN peacekeeping forces might well be necessary. And somehow the US would have to assure the Russians that it would support the continuation of their access to Latakia.
What the US would, in fact, hope to arrange would be a ceasefire in which the moderate rebels end up aligned more with Assad and his supporters, which include Sunni businessmen and elements of the Sunni middle class, as well as Christians.
It's a tricky piece of work, and it involves concessions to the Russians. Considerably worse from a moral perspective would be concessions to the Assad government as well.
Getting the moderate elements that have been fighting Assad and his military for over two years to switch sides, in effect, would not be easy. But stranger things have happened in the area.
Recall the Lebanese civil war where various factions were constantly switching sides for temporary gains. A compromise that cuts the power of the Nusra Front and its radical Islamist allies is, in the short run, beneficial to the US, to the Russians, to the Assad government, and, as well, to the moderate rebels.
How would it evolve in the long run? Who knows, but if the jihadis are emasculated, everyone else wins. And that's a pretty solid basis for compromise.
The Middle East is on the brink of what could be an all-engulfing Sunni-Shiite conflagration. Syria is clearly the hot spot, but sectarian violence in Iraq is worsening, too. Egypt is far from stable, though at least its problems are between religious Sunnis and more moderate ones.
In recent decades, Iran’s revolutionary government has narrowed its ambitions, using its pro-Palestinian credentials and its support of Hezbollah and Assad to maintain influence beyond its borders.
With the more moderate President Hassan Rouhani in place, now is the ideal moment to work out a compromise with Iran that helps bring it back into the mainstream of the Middle East in exchange for a halt to its nuclear ambitions. Saudi Arabia would not be happy with a more moderate Iran accepted by the West, but, with the resurgence of the US energy sector, Saudi Arabia is not as important to the US as it once was.
An ambitious approach with Russia once again in a co-equal role would have the overarching purpose of heading off the ever-broadening Sunni-Shiite battle lines. It is worth the effort. Terrorism, whether fostered by Syria's civil war or Salafist radicals as far afield as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen, continues to grow. If the Sunni-Shiite split festers and expands, so will terrorism.
Now's the time to think big, and to take a comprehensive approach to the entire Middle East.
Mac Deford is retired after a career as a Foreign Service officer, an international banker, and a museum director. He lives in Owl's Head, Maine and still travels frequently to the Middle East.