Militants of the Islamic State ride through Raqqa city in Syria on a road leading to Iraq. (Uncredited/AP)
Opinion writer

Afavorite Arab proverb goes something like this: A shepherd asks the prophet: Should I let my camels loose and trust in God? No, answers the prophet. Tie down your camels and trust in God.

The Obama administration has been operating with a loose strategy in Syria and Iraq. Washington said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must go, but missed its opportunity to make him leave. The United States bet on the ability of a mainly Shiite security force in Iraq to regain territory from the Islamic State, even when Sunnis there told Washington it wouldn’t work.

The loose camels have now wandered off. Russian President Vladimir Putin revealed the strategic disarray — the contradictions and unrealistic expectations in U.S. policy — when he intervened militarily in Syria last month. The question now is how the administration can tie down its policy to a more realistic set of objectives going forward.

Let’s make several starting assumptions: First, Putin, Assad and their friends in Iran cannot impose a military solution in Syria. Their alliance will deepen the Sunni world’s jihad against them, and will probably increase the terrorist and refugee threat to Europe. They can’t “win.” Second, everyone wants to contain (and eventually, crush) the Islamic State. It’s the one goal that unites Russia, the United States, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Even Turkey and Qatar, which played footsie too long with the jihadists, realize the extremist group must be defeated.

What should the Obama administration do, in its remaining 16 months, to frame a strategy that could continue into the next administration and perhaps beyond?

The United States must first gather better intelligence about this battle space. We have been surprised too many times. We “underestimated” the Islamic State before it seized Mosul in June 2014, according to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. A year later, we underestimated the jihadists again before they captured Ramadi. We didn’t see the fatal weakness of the Pentagon’s “train and equip” force of Syrian rebels; they walked into an ambush in July partly because of bad intelligence. And we didn’t see the Russian military intervention coming.

U.S. commanders too often find themselves living the Indian parable about the blind men who try to figure out what an elephant looks like by each touching a different part. Our military needs the kind of “ground truth” in Syria and Iraq that can only come from reliable, long-term intelligence sources. America’s too-quick exit from Iraq in 2011 and our feckless policy toward Syria have inhibited the development of such assets. But it’s never too late to do the right thing.

A prime example of the intelligence shortfall is the train-and-equip program that was derailed so quickly this summer by Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate, in northern Syria. The Pentagon needs to assess immediately why this overt, U.S.-backed program failed so badly, and whether it can be rebuilt. A better bet may be the CIA’s covert training program, whose fighters can make tactical battlefield deals with Jabhat al-Nusra without publicly allying with it.

What about safe zones in northern and southern Syria? That still seems like a good idea, so long as they’re established as corridors for humanitarian assistance and revived public services, rather than an armed U.S. or Turkish military intervention to help the rebels. Here, again, the United States needs better information. Scores of Syrians travel across the border from Turkey and Jordan every day to deliver basic supplies and keep water and other essential services operating. Talk to them! Maybe these zones could be the start of a managed transition to a post-Assad government.

The United States has lost its chance to make Assad’s departure a precondition for negotiations. But Washington should continue to insist that he must go eventually. Otherwise, no political deal can work. President Obama should be urging Putin right now to resume the Geneva negotiating process.

Ground truth in Iraq is that Sunnis bitterly mistrust the Shiite government, and vice versa. Sadly, this won’t change for a generation. Now is the time for Washington to insist on a federal Iraq, and to arm Sunnis and Kurds unilaterally if Baghdad (pressed by Tehran) continues to resist.

What Putin has done, perhaps without realizing it, is to deepen the sectarian character of the war raging across Syria and Iraq. It’s the Shiite team (Russia, Iran, Alawites in Syria, Shiites in Iraq) versus the Sunni team (the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Sunni rebels). Such a war is a disastrous mistake for everyone. The United States needs a strategy that begins to contain the sectarian violence, rather than adding more fuel.

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