A peek at the front page of any newspaper will tell you the single greatest question facing the world today is Syria and the elusive task of crafting a lasting peace.

No one denies that the stakes are perilously high or that the situation is quite serious given the unpredictable policies of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s steadfast determination to defend the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The worst-case scenario is a full-blown regional war that drags in major protagonists — perhaps leading to something far worse.

doomsday clock

Turkey’s NATO membership puts the US in an exceedingly tough position. Washington is obliged to defend its ally. But this is exactly the last thing it wants to do at this time. The only way to forestall a chain of events that would put the US and Russia on a collision course is to achieve a speedy truce and ceasefire in Syria. This would forge a basis for a political solution to the crisis and set the stage for a decisive showdown with ISIS.

Sadly, at this juncture, none of the parties are prepared to sacrifice even the tiniest parts of their regional ambitions. The most striking example of this is a speech by Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this week. Kerry said that he and Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov agreed “in principle on a truce in Syria” but “problems still remain.” Reading between the lines we can deduce the following: “Yes, there is some progress. But we still disagree on most of the important points.”

Time is running out

It seems to me it’s high time for the politicians on all sides to get real while the tinderbox is still controllable. Otherwise, the world will slide into another, much more devastating war. The ones who need to get real first are the Americans and the Russians, the ones who have the most leverage in the region.

Let’s start with the US. Getting “real” involves defining what the US truly desires in Syria besides destroying ISIS. Currently, Washington pursues contradictory aims.

On the one hand, the Americans are supporting the Syrian Kurds who are so far the most effective fighters against the Islamic State.  On the other, the US is trying to placate Turkey with President Obama saying, “of course Turkey has its right to self-defense.”

Turkey interprets this right to self-defense as a license to mercilessly shell Kurdish villages along the Syrian-Turkish border and to invade Syria in order to annihilate the Kurds they find there. Going into Syria also makes a direct clash with Russian forces likely.

It’s time for Washington to explain clearly to Ankara that we support and will continue to support the Kurds as the most reliable and effective mechanism in our war against ISIS. The US must also make clear that we will never support a Turkish incursion into Syria because that will scuttle any hope for a peaceful resolution of the crisis. America must finally prove that it can be a reliable ally in the Middle East and extinguish all speculation to the contrary.

Another thing the US must do is stop repeating its mantra that “Assad must go now.” Secretary Kerry said a few days ago that “If Assad stays, Syria may disintegrate as a state.”

Actually, it’s a vice-versa situation. If Assad leaves now, Syria will certainly submerge into real chaos. I’m far from being a fan of the Russian president. But I agree with him on one nagging question – if Assad goes, who will be at the helm?

We already have the shining example of Libya. Instead of exuding gratitude to the US for its export of democracy after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, the country transformed itself into a source of tribal warfare and an important bastion for the Islamic State.

Problems like Syria or Libya can’t be solved by surgically removing one person — even if it is a president. In the case of Syria, who, after Assad goes, can the US trust inside the Syrian opposition?

Islamists one and all

Those in the opposition who are labeled “moderates” hardly exist. The lion’s share of the opposition is made up of Islamists who only differ in the specific shading of fundamentalist Islam they adhere to. Moreover, these groups don’t get along with each other.

Yes, there is no doubt that Assad must leave. But this can only happen when the proper conditions and a mechanism for a peaceful transition of power are created in Syria.

It’s time for the Russians to get real, too. Putin, last week, gave public form to his ideas and goals (or at least an essential part of them) on Syria. In a nutshell, he said that Moscow is extremely concerned that jihadist activity in Syria will spill over into the Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union and then Russia itself. In a nation where Muslims make up 11% of the total population, this is indeed a serious problem for Putin.

However, there’s another aspect to Russia’s involvement in Syria: The Kremlin is paranoid about “being squeezed out” of the Mideast should the Assad regime falls. But it’s time for Moscow to realize, once and for all, that this regime is doomed anyway. It must also understand that a peaceful settlement cannot be crafted if Assad remains in Damascus.

To this end, it’s time to guarantee that Assad will leave after a transition period and most important, Russia must begin constructively working within the framework of the Syrian peace process. This would be the best way to preserve Russian interests in Syria and in the Middle East in general.

Finally, it’s also high time for Turkey to have a reality check. Erdogan must realize that the creation of Kurdish autonomy in Syria is inevitable, just as it was in Iraq. He must also grasp that forceful actions by Ankara cannot prevent this. It would also be really useful if the Turkish president would reconsider his far-reaching ambitions to turn Turkey into regional super power — the days of the Ottoman Empire are long gone.

So as the clock ticks, all contending parties in the Syrian crisis must get real and work together to head off what could become the worst military catastrophe since the Second Word War.

Jim Davis is a political analyst and the president of South Shore Consultants Inc.

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.

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