A successful strategist is able to balance costs and benefits in the attainment of clearly defined objectives.  This task demands prioritizing: Primary and secondary political goals need to be articulated, and military resources allocated accordingly.

The Obama administration’s strategy for defeating the Islamic State (aka ISIS) has failed so far because a secondary objective—Washington’s a priori insistence that “Assad must go”—has hampered the quest for a political solution in Damascus.  In 2012 this demand stalled former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan’s initially promising attempt to negotiate a compromise agreement.  Its mindless repetition torpedoed the Geneva conference on Syria before it even started in January 2012.  The results have been disastrous for the Syrian people—a quarter of a million dead, nine million displaced—and conducive to the rise of ISIS and other extremist groups.

It is now obvious, as I have repeatedly argued over the years, that the staying power of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is far greater than has been claimed by successive U.S. policymakers.  The secret of its resilience lies in the fact that no “moderate opposition” exists, and that millions of Syrians are horrified by the alternative.  That fact is confirmed by the abject failure of President Obama’s $500 million program to train and equip “vetted, moderate” Syrian rebels, announced in May 2014: Right now, fewer than a dozen of them are still in the field.

Turning over a new leaf on Syria is a strategic necessity, not least because it is not in the American interest to see Europe permanently transformed and destabilized by an unceasing influx of mainly Muslim migrants.  The regime’s downfall would be followed by massive carnage, by new waves of refugees heading west, and by the imposition of a jihadist dictatorship.  Whether it would be controlled by the Al Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front—the dominant opposition fighting force—or by ISIS itself would be irrelevant to the millions of Syria’s beleaguered Alawites, Christians, and Druze, as well as many moderate Sunnis who do not cherish the prospect of living under sharia.

If it is recognized in Washington that regime change at any price would likely produce worse results than a compromise solution, then Russia’s decision to take a more active role in fighting ISIS and rearming Assad can be seen as an opportunity rather than a threat.  Accepting a limited partnership in dealing with a common foe—Sir Winston Churchill had no qualms about doing so in June 1941—would clarify and simplify the situation.  This would make it more difficult for Turkey and the Gulf monarchies to continue playing the self-serving games that have hampered all anti-ISIS efforts to date, with Erdogan treating the Kurds as the main enemy and the Saudis primarily hoping to replace Assad with their hard-core Islamist protégés.

In short, deferring the issue of Assad’s political future in order to manage the conflict and curb jihadist extremism carries no strategic cost and may produce tangible benefits. This would be a responsible and strategically sound decision, in contrast to the intellectual wasteland of GOP hopefuls parroting neoconservative demands for “more robust action” that have yielded such disastrous results in Iraq, or—perhaps more pertinently—in Libya since 2011.  That decision would be based on the acceptance that there is a three-cornered stalemate: The rebels are unable to bring down the regime, Bashar’s forces are unable to reestablish control, and ISIS cannot be defeated as long as there is no political agreement among the interested outside powers.  Continued stalemate has acquired the character of a minus-sum game for all except al-Baghdadi and his murderous followers.

Turning over a new leaf would enable the United States to assume the leading role both in the quest for a long-term political solution and in the execution of a viable military strategy to defeat the Islamic State.  It would also enable Washington to demand reciprocal concessions from Russia and Iran, based on the reasonable claim that no interested party should expect the attainment of its optimal goals.  Both Moscow and Tehran are interested in safeguarding their vital interests—preventing Syria’s fall to Sunni jihadism—rather than sticking with Assad, come what may. In the end a Syrian equivalent to Egypt’s General al-Sissi may yet emerge, to the benefit of all.  There is ample room for creative diplomacy.

Syria will never be a stable democracy ruled by a moderate, pro-Western government.  As such she is no exception to the rest of the Arab world.  It is in the American interest to break the current deadlock and to prevent the emergence of a Syrian caliphate that would further destabilize the region and send fresh millions of refugees to Germany, Benelux, and Scandinavia.  Success is uncertain, but the effort is worth a try.