by Thomas W. Lippman
President Obama and the Arab Gulf monarchies may have papered over their differences about Iran at Camp David this week, but it was painfully clear after their summit meeting that they did not develop any new strategy or plan for ending the violence in Syria.
On the contrary, the president told the television network al-Arabiya that the Syrian conflict would “probably not” end before he leaves office in January 2017. His comment was a blunt acknowledgement that the war in Syria is a quagmire in which no one is winning, no one has been defeated, and there are so many competing groups and conflicting agendas that it is nearly impossible to sort them out. The war will drag on; even if the government of President Bashar al-Assad were to fall, the many groups and factions seeking to control Syria would then fight it out among themselves.
The president and the representatives of the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman—said they agreed that the Syrian conflict cannot be settled by military means, and that there can be no role for Assad in any postwar arrangements. They said all the right things about establishing a postwar Syrian government that is “independent, inclusive, [and] protects the rights of minority groups,” according to an annex to the joint communiqué issued after the meeting, and that they would enhance their support for “moderate” opposition forces, assuming that they can agree on who those might be.
They promised support for Syria’s neighbors that are struggling to care for the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled the fighting. They agreed to intensify efforts to cut off the flow of foreign fighters going to Syria to join the various factions there and to reduce flow of money to the Islamic State and other extremist groups. But none of that is really new. The only new military action that came up—establishing a “no-fly zone” over part of Syria to protect civilians there from government air strikes—was ruled out once again by Deputy White House National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes.
“We’ve said we are open to evaluating different options inside of Syria,” Rhodes told reporters. “But we have not seen a no-fly zone as being a viable option that can contribute to essentially changing decisively the situation on the ground given the nature of the fighting that’s taking place in urban areas and across the country.”.
In fairness to the Camp David participants, they were at the meeting primarily to discuss Iran, and there was not much they could offer on the war in Syria because none of them wants to insert military forces on the ground. Without that, what happens in Syria is not entirely or even mostly up to the United States and its friends in the GCC. There are multiple rebel groups with varying sources of external support, in addition to the fighters of the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), which has no interest in reestablishing a peaceful Syria within its recognized borders because it considers itself a transnational “caliphate,” or Islamic nation. Iran is supporting Assad, its only Arab ally, and the roles of Turkey and Russia are not entirely clear. The Turks have advocated a no-fly zone but have been reluctant to do anything that would encourage Kurdish independence.
Moreover, the communiqué issued at the end of the Camp David session made clear that the search for a solution is still hampered by a lack of clarity about the objectives of the United States, the Gulf Countries, and other supporters of the coalition air campaign against the Islamic state. Is this war about removing the Assad regime and establishing some legitimate, recognized government of Syria, or is it about defeating IS? If the latter, Assad is on the same side as those who declared once again at Camp David that he is part of the problem and cannot be part of the solution. Without clearly defined, clearly articulated objectives, without a common understanding of who is an acceptable Syrian and who is not, it remains a task beyond diplomacy to devise an effective course of action.
The upshot is that the Syrian nightmare seems destined to continue indefinitely. As long as it does, it will remain a threat to the stability of the entire region. Lebanon and Jordan in particular are sheltering more refugees than their resources can support. With the conflicts in Libya and Yemen still unresolved and the Israel-Palestine question seemingly further from resolution than ever, and Egypt—the Arab world’s largest and most powerful country in military terms—seemingly neutered by its own economic, political and security problems, there is no end in sight for the Middle East’s seemingly endless conflicts.