Short of a global pandemic that kills hundreds of millions or a meteor striking earth, envisaging a nightmare worse than what is happening in Syria may be impossible. The loosest analogy is a patient with various forms of cancer in which chemotherapy for curing one exacerbates the others. In simple terms, there are no good ways in or out to resolve this horrific situation.
Of the overriding obstacles to solution, the most obvious is the competition and conflict between and among the interests and objectives of many participants. Russia may assert that its intervention in Syria is to defeat terrorists and terrorism. To achieve those aims, some semblance of a government is vital so as not to repeat the fiascoes in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. For the time being, Bashar al Assad represents that government.
In a diabolical way, not attacking the Islamic State makes sense to Vladimir Putin. No matter how bad the Assad regime is -- and it is very bad -- IS is worse. Hence IS serves the purpose of making Assad a less worse alternative. As long as millions of Syrians are displaced and many head for Europe, this agonizing force of refugees exceeds the limits of European governments in responding, placing further pressure on the West that aids Putin's aims.
Saudi Arabia fears Iran and wants Assad gone. However, its Wahabi ideology has been responsible for the growth of Islamic terrorist groups beginning with al-Qaida. As long as IS -- even with its extremist views of Wahabism -- threatens Assad, what is the utility of attacking it frontally despite the offer of sending troops?
Iran supports Assad and Shia groups in the region. While it views IS as a real threat, maintaining Assad in power is its priority. Perhaps Tehran can be persuaded to change its attitude toward IS. However, incentives for that have not been found.
The Shia government in Baghdad is more concerned with controlling Sunnis than destroying IS. The testimony of the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency chief to Congress this week declared that Iraq would not attempt to eject IS from Mosul this year. Hence, Iraq is not all in against IS.
Turkey is paranoid about the Kurds. The Kurds are among the United States' best and only weapon against IS in Syria. While Ankara is adamant about Assad leaving, it is not prepared to take stronger action against the IS -- so far.
Jordan is close to the breaking point after absorbing about 1.5 million Syrian refugees. Israel is reluctant to take on IS and risk reprisals including IS infiltration into Gaza or the West Bank and its Arab minorities. And NATO, so far, has taken only minimal action to cope with the Syrian refugee crisis. Against this background of horrors, the United States appears as an impotent giant. It is using an attrition strategy against IS through a campaign to cut off funding; access of foreign fighters coming and going; a failing training and arming program of "moderate" opposition forces; air and missile strikes; and reliance on Kurdish forces. At best, that strategy may take years, not months, to work.
The option of organizing a ground force to defeat IS in Raqqa in the east is politically impossible at present. Worse, if a force could eliminate IS, who would provide follow-on elements to provide effective governance and stay in place possibly for decades to ensure stability? And what happens if, unintended or otherwise, Russian forces were drawn into the conflict?
The tragedy is, when it comes to humanitarian crises, the world turns a blind eye. After Pakistani troops killed 100,000 to 200,000 in East Pakistan in 1971; Pol Pot and the murderous Khmer Rouge executed 1.5 million to 3 million Cambodians in the killing fields from 1975 to '79; and 500,000 to 1 million Rwandans died during three months in 1994, outrage was the outcome. And even as Yugoslavia broke apart and NATO intervened in 1999, this was in the heart of Europe and Russia was on side.
Perhaps the cease-fire agreed to last week in Munich may offer a respite. But, given the history, this could be a fragile reed. Diplomacy must continue. Ensuring that Russia and Iran focus on IS must remain the urgent priority. And persuading Baghdad to make peace with the Sunnis and take on IS likewise is needed no matter how bleak those prospects.
Tragically, unless the cease-fire is made to hold for the long term, there are only bad options. Syria has no way out or in if this cease-fire fails. _________________________________________________________________
Harlan Ullman is UPI's Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist; chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business; and senior adviser at Washington, D.C.'s Atlantic Council and Business Executives for National Security (BENS). His latest book is "A Handful of Bullets: How the Murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand Still Menaces the Peace."