Against ISIS in Syria, President Obama's Diplomacy Push Is Crucial

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Against ISIS in Syria, President Obama's Diplomacy Push Is Crucial

Participants in the Syria talks at the Hotel Imperial in Vienna that took place in late October. (Photo: US State Department/EPA)

On Sunday night, President Obama addressed the nation on "keeping the American people safe."

Here was President Obama's bullet point on diplomacy:

Fourth, with American leadership, the international community has begun to establish a process -- and timeline -- to pursue ceasefires and a political resolution to the Syrian war. Doing so will allow the Syrian people and every country, including our allies, but also countries like Russia, to focus on the common goal of destroying ISIL -- a group that threatens us all.

The New York Times' main article on the speech did not even mention President Obama's bullet point on diplomacy.

But U.S. diplomacy to end the Syrian civil war is crucial to confronting ISIS.

In late September, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told the UN General Assembly that five countries - the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran - were key to finding a political solution in Syria.

On November 14, these five countries and others signed an agreement for talks to begin between the Syrian government and opposition representatives on a transition government by New Year's Day. According to the agreement, as soon as the talks on a transition government start, the five countries will support an immediate, UN-monitored ceasefire between everyone in Syria participating in the talks. No such agreement existed before between these five countries.

How do we know that the five countries are taking the agreement seriously? They're arguing vigorously over the details of its implementation. If its details are worth arguing about, then the agreement must matter.

In particular, the five powers must believe that it's likely that there's going to be a ceasefire between the Syrian government and its non-ISIS opposition, because they're arguing about which groups are going to be covered by the ceasefire. And the five powers must believe that the talks on a transition government matter, because they're arguing about which groups are going to be represented at the talks.

If it matters that ISIS holds so much territory in Syria, then the November 14 Vienna agreement matters. If territory is going to be taken away from ISIS, then it has to be occupied by somebody else. The "somebody else" isn't going to be Western ground troops. That would be unsustainable - as President Obama said Sunday night - and Western publics won't support it. Even if Western publics would support it in the beginning, they wouldn't maintain their support when it becomes a quagmire. The "somebody else" has to be local. And for "local" to work, there has to be a diplomatic agreement between the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran.

In the absence of a diplomatic agreement, any proposal for "local" to be the present Syrian government is likely to be undermined by Saudi Arabia and Turkey. In the absence of a diplomatic agreement, any proposal for "local" to be people currently fighting to overthrow the Syrian government is likely to be undermined by Russia and Iran. Without a diplomatic agreement, there can be no sustainable significant reduction in the territory controlled in Syria by ISIS. Diplomacy to end the Syrian civil war isn't just a nice idea. It's the only way out.

You can show your support for Secretary Kerry's efforts for a ceasefire and talks on a negotiated transition government in Syria by New Year's Day here.

Robert Naiman

Robert Naiman is Policy Director at Just Foreign Policy. Naiman has worked as a policy analyst and researcher at the Center for Economic and Policy Research and Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch. He has masters degrees in economics and mathematics from the University of Illinois and has studied and worked in the Middle East. You can contact him here.

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