How to Begin to End the Syrian War

War-weary Syrians.

Photographer: Muslum Etgu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Europe's refugee crisis has refocused attention on the horrors of the war in Syria and should rekindle diplomatic efforts to end it. But any such attempt needs to reckon with a stark reality: The partition of Syria is already happening.

This is an outcome no side would have chosen when pro-democracy protesters took to Syria's streets in 2011. But at this point, the countries involved should use Syria's partition as a basis to reconcile their competing interests and break the international deadlock that feeds the war.

QuickTake Syria's Civil War

The flurry of Syria-related diplomatic gestures made since July, when Iran reached an international agreement on its nuclear fuel program, have amounted to nothing new. Russia proposed forming an anti-Islamic State coalition that would include Syrian President Bashar al-Assad -- which would help Assad survive as Syria's ruler. Saudi Arabia suggested ending its support for the rebels, if Iran and Hezbollah pull their troops out of Syria -- which would eliminate the support Assad needs to continue. Iran has promised a proposal of its own later this month, while the U.S. continues to support a power-sharing transition that seems unattainable.

Related: To Imagine Syria at Peace, Think of Bosnia

The renewed willingness to talk is welcome, but it needs to be based on reality: No side in this war is in a position to win, and any proposal based on restoring central control across the country is illusory.

A soft partition could square some of these diplomatic circles and help freeze at least part of the conflict. Assad has already acknowledged that he can no longer control much of the country, and has instead consolidated his forces around a defensible heartland. Kurds have established control over the areas they dominate, and have driven out Islamic State.

The situation in Sunni-controlled areas is much more complicated, but not as hopeless as it's sometimes made out. A coalition of non-Islamist rebels supported by Jordan, the U.S. and other allies has established itself in southern Syria at the expense of both the regime and the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front.

Although an agreement to solidify this soft partition wouldn't immediately end the war, it could simplify and shorten it. It would give Assad's exhausted forces and those of the internationally acceptable opposition -- which have borne the brunt of Assad's aggression -- reason to honor a cease-fire. That, in turn, would make it possible for cooperating rebels to turn their undivided attention to seizing territory from Islamic State and the Nusra Front. With enough military, financial and political encouragement from their sponsors, these fighters should be capable.

Recognizing Syria's de facto partition would also enable outside powers to secure their core interests. It would make feasible a version of Russia's proposal to refocus the war on Islamic State, without that becoming code for an Assad victory. It would enable Iranian and Hezbollah troops to withdraw, satisfying Saudi Arabia. It would render more coherent, too, a U.S. policy that seeks to destroy Islamic State with the help of Sunni rebels -- rebels whose first concern has been to fight Assad.

Make no mistake: Reaching any kind of agreement would be enormously difficult. The conflict in Syria is at root a proxy war that pits Russia and Iran against the U.S., Turkey and the Gulf states -- with a wild card in the form of Islamic State. Russia is building a new air base in northern Syria, with a view to launching its own airstrikes. And inside the country, any formal partition remains a toxic concept. Even drawing lines for a cease-fire would be fraught, let alone resolving which side controls Aleppo, the Sunni suburbs of Damascus or the border with the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights.

Yet nothing else has worked. For months if not years, nothing of substance has even been attempted. Meanwhile, Assad's barrel bombs continue to fall on Syrian civilians, Islamic State keeps a base in Syria from which to menace Iraq, the turmoil spills over into Lebanon and Turkey, and refugees drown on their way to Europe.

Recognizing the reality of a partitioned Syria would be just a first step. But it may be the only way to get all sides to start working to end this war.

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