How to End Syria's War

Fighters for the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) take part in a military parade along the streets of northern Raqqa province June 30, 2014. Stringer/Reuters

International talks over Syria's future are stuck on the fate of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar—the rebels' main backers—insist on toppling Assad. Russia and Iran, on the other hand, continue to rebuff any demands for their client in Damascus to step down. The U.S. and its Western allies are somewhere in between, wishing that Assad would voluntarily leave, but not committing to his removal from power. It's time we stop beating around the bush and address the issue of Assad head on. Failure to do so ensures the continuation of the war, with all its consequences: more death, destruction, and migration. The Islamic State militant group (ISIS), whom all sides want to destroy, stands to benefit the most from this outcome.

Despite the countless meetings on Syria between U.S. and Russian officials over the past four years, the most consequential diplomacy that should be happening today is not so much between Washington and Moscow but among nations who have made much stronger investments into Syria's future and who have committed significant political capital and material resources to shape the conflict's outcome: Russia and Iran on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar on the other.

Those are also the parties that have been duking it out by proxy on the battlefield. It's not that the U.S. has no influence in this crisis—no solution will have legitimacy in the eyes of the international community without America's blessing—but it is not a major player simply because, in the words of Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, it has put very little "skin in the game." Washington has to be present, of course, to coordinate with its allies and partners and facilitate talks with the adversaries, but the truth is that it cannot on its own push for a solution any more effectively than the main antagonists.

Effective diplomacy must start by identifying the core interests of the Russian-Iranian side and the Saudi-Turkish-Qatari side. The good news is that there is a strong foundation upon which these two camps can cooperate: It is in nobody's interest, except for ISIS, for the civil war to go on. What's even more encouraging is that both sides agree that after four-and-a-half years of fighting there is no military solution to the conflict. Indeed, they all have grudgingly realized that no intervening party in Syria will be able to achieve its objectives at the expense of its adversaries or without incurring enormous costs.

The regional Sunni axis has made its wishes very clear: Assad must go and Syria should have a political system that gives the Sunni community rights and influence that are commensurate with its size. Iran wants a regime in Damascus that doesn't plot against it, that cooperates on intelligence and in the fight against Salafi jihadis, and that preserves the supply lines to Hezbollah to allow it to continue to play its military deterrent role vis-à-vis Israel. Russia wants to keep its 45-year-old naval base in Tartus, which enables it to project power to the Mediterranean (it is also the sole Russian naval base beyond the Bosporus), and to make sure that Syria is not governed by Muslim radicals who can form links with counterparts in Chechnya. Anything beyond these two sides' demands are preferences, but not red lines.

So how can concessions be made? The bloody confrontation and intense competition of the past few years won't make it easy at all and the process of negotiation will take time, but first each side must actually realize that compromises have to be reached.

Should Moscow and Tehran agree to Assad leaving, Riyadh, Ankara and Doha can guarantee that Russia and Iran's vital interests, as laid out above, remain intact. They can do so because they have significant leverage over their proxies on the Syrian battlefield, including Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, the biggest and most powerful rebel groups. The Saudis have already started the process of putting the Syrian opposition's house in order partly to present before the world a less divided opposition that can negotiate with the regime, but also to assuage Russian and Iranian concerns about terrorist elements among rebel ranks.

What they could also do, along with the Turks and the Qataris, is extract serious concessions from their surrogates about the political transition in Syria and the day after. Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam have some margin of independence and could refuse to cooperate, but it would be very hard for them to sustain their operations and gain a political role in any future Syrian state without the consent and material support of their sponsors.

Only in this environment of compromise and cooperation can all sides defeat ISIS in Syria. Saudi Arabia's creation of a military coalition of Arab and Muslim-majority states to fight terrorism is as real as cold fusion. It won't do the trick. The only and most effective way to defeat ISIS is by ending the civil war, and that will require those who are sponsoring the violence to sit around the table and engage in hard talk.

Bilal Y. Saab is Senior Fellow for Middle East Security at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.