U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a news conference in Vienna, Austria, on May 17, 2016.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a news conference in Vienna, Austria, on May 17, 2016. Leonhard Foeger/Pool Photo via AP

If Diplomacy Fails, Then What for Syria?

What leverage has a United States that is so reluctant to fight?

As fighting rages on in Syria, world leaders in Vienna on Tuesday pledged to turn the limited “cessation of hostilities” into a nationwide ceasefire heralding progress toward full peace and a political end to the war. Yet the question remains, as it has for years: If diplomacy fails, then what?

“The challenge that we face now is to transform these possibilities into a reality of an agreement at some point,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said after meeting with the International Syria Support Group. “The stakes are too high and this conflict has gone on too long” to let any party stop the peace momentum, he said.

What is the stick if the carrot fails to bring the parties—including the murderous dictator Bashir al-Assad—to the table? And does a United States reluctant to wage war have any leverage?

“I think the United States of America always has leverage, and all of the options are available to any president of the United States,” Kerry said in Austria. Assad, Kerry said, “should never make a miscalculation about President Obama’s determination to do what is right at any given moment of time, where he believes that he has to make that decision.”

And so, while the talks continue, so does the fighting. 

Well into Year Six of the grinding hell on the ground that is the Syrian civil war, the United States looks to be pursuing two tracks. First: with relentless diplomacy, Kerry and his team in Geneva are pursuing a ceasefire, or anything approaching it. Second: quietly, U.S. special operations forces on the ground, along with local fighters and drones and aircraft, wage a war against ISIS that the White House won’t even call “combat” and is conducted far from the spotlight. 

In between the two, there is precious little. And America, so far, has liked it that way.

Two decades ago, when the carnage in Bosnia reached levels that U.S. and European leaders felt they could no longer ignore, they launched a train-and-equip mission and the NATO bombing campaign called Operation Deliberate Force. Shifting facts on the ground led to talks at the table and, eventually, an end to the bloody war. 

Today, in a moment haunted by the ghost of the Iraq War—a war that never ended — the president has decided against a forceful, energetic pursuit of an end to the Syrian civil war. The White House has calculated, it seems, that American political capital is all used up at the moment, by wars that delivered no victories and exhausted a public that has little desire to put ground troops into another fight in the Middle East. So instead of warfare, or “combat,” we get modern counterterrorism operations – drones, special operations, and secret missions — that seek to strike a middle ground between doing nothing and getting too engaged. And we do everything we can to avoid calling that conflict a war, even when it claims American lives, as the fight in Iraq did last week.

Former Defense Secretary Bob Gates blasted what he called the White House’s “semantic backflips to avoid using the word combat.” Gates said on Thursday’s Morning Joe. “I have a feeling it's got everything to do with the politics of — we've ended combat operations in Iraq. It's over. We’re done.”

Only we are not done, as Gates went on to say; we are still there, even if in a far smaller way. The Pentagon’s top brass knows this, all too well. 

“We’ve been at war since 9/11. The war didn’t stop,” said U.S. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller this week. No matter what the latest mission is, if “you’re gone, you’re gone.”

As the families of those who will not return — and very few others — feel every day.

“I could see him saving people he didn’t even know, that was definitely my brother,” says Zack Wheeler, brother of Master Sgt. Josh Wheeler, the first U.S. soldier to die in combat fighting ISIS. Wheeler was killed in a firefight working to save the lives of Kurdish fighters. “My personal feeling is, I always thought there was a war; if people are dying, there has got to be a war if they are getting killed by enemy fire. People are getting killed from terrorists who are over there.” 

Obama says he has a very high threshold for sending American forces into combat in part because he wanted fewer families to feel the pain the Wheelers experience.

“The notion that the way to solve every one of these problems is to deploy our military—that hasn't been true in the past and it won't be true now,” Obama said in March 2012. That was well before the hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of displaced persons and the ascendance of ISIS. “We've got to think through what we do through the lens of what's going to be effective, but also what's critical for U.S. security interests.”

His stance has not dramatically shifted even as facts on the ground have. The U.S. pursues diplomacy focused on stopping the fighting and bringing the parties to peace table. The talk now is of cooperating with Russia even on the military fight against ISIS and the al-Qaeda linked al-Nusra, but only if Russia can get the Assad regime to comply with the ceasefire.

The U.S. still wants Assad to step aside and step down. But by now it’s clear the Russians will not deliver Assad from Damascus or to the West. But what if the Russians can’t even deliver Assad’s cooperation?

“They are trying to use the limited amount of leverage they have to get something out of it — stopping fighting is a good thing for any period of time and if they can find any ounce or sign of political willingness, they are going to play that card out for as long as they possibly can,” says Hardin Lang, who spent more than a decade at the United Nations and is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, of U.S. diplomats.  “We can keep doing what we are doing or do more of it with drones and Special Forces, but if the military wedge against ISIS isn’t going to translate into the political capital to leverage a negotiation, than how does the long game play even in terms of defeating ISIS?” 
And so the talks continue in Geneva and America’s elite special operations troops roll on in Iraq and Syria and elsewhere, from Nigeria to Afghanistan. But few involved from the inside or watching from the outside expect those talks to make much immediate difference in the short-term on either front.

With ISIS’s ground territory relatively contained by U.S. and Russian-backed military pressure in Iraq and Syria, the group and its ideology are still spreading via terrorist tactics. Massive bombings are killing in Baghdad once again — claiming more than 200 lives this week alone — and Defense Secretary Ash Carter just announced the Pentagon is hardening security at military bases back in the United States from fear of ISIS-inspired attacks. 

After Syria, what comes next for the Middle East? 

At the White House, says one administration official close to Syria policy, “They feel that their ground game is going well right now, they have rolled back (ISIS) in some areas, but they also know they are not going to be able to defeat the organization in the next seven months.” 

Perhaps it’s a question they won’t have to answer. 

“That is going to be Clinton or Trump’s problem,” the official said.