As war between President Bashar al-Assad and various rebel forces raged across Syria, as the Obama administration and the CIA armed rebel factions of their liking while continuing an air campaign against the militants of the Islamic State (ISIS), as Russia entered the quagmire with its own airstrikes, and as millions of Syrians fled for their lives amid untold violence, a Connecticut congressman decided to do something.
At the end of September, Connecticut Representative Jim Himes, a House Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, corralled 54 of his colleagues into sending a letter to President Obama calling for the start of international negotiations that would include Iran and Russia and be aimed at ending the Syrian civil war. President Obama is reportedly listening.
This could prove to be a critical turning point in a brutal conflict that has, until now, seemed without end—not because Himes has a quick, sure-to-succeed solution, but because every other course of action is overwhelmingly likely to fail. To understand why, it’s necessary to take a brief look backward.
Pouring Gasoline on Syria’s Fire
More than four years ago, in 2011, passionate Arab Spring protesters rose up to overthrow despised leaders from Tunisia to Libya, Egypt to Yemen. In Syria, citizens filled the streets, voicing their opposition to the murderous regime of President Bashar al-Assad. His government responded by unleashing its military on the protesters. Some of them, along with soldiers from Assad’s forces, went on to form the Free Syrian Army (FSA), thanks, in part, to financing from the CIA and the Saudis, and a civil war began. As months of fighting turned into years, hundreds of thousands of civilians died, and millions more were uprooted.
In the process, more extreme factions among the rebels, including the Al Qaeda–aligned al-Nusra Front, gained ever greater traction, while ISIS spread across parts of Syria and Iraq, proclaiming a “caliphate” and drawing foreign volunteers by the thousands. ISIS had grown and prospered within the mayhem and power vacuum created by the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq and then its dismantling of Saddam Hussein’s army. (Some future ISIS leaders, in fact, first met inside US military prison camps during those years.)
Turning the fog of the Syrian civil war to its advantage, ISIS claimed ever more land in northern Syria and, emboldened, launched an offensive in Iraq, routing the army the US had created there and taking the country’s second largest city, Mosul. But ISIS was more than a brutal, terrorist insurgency. It was also a darkly savvy PR operation. In September 2014, it filmed beheadings of American prisoners and put them online.