Syria’s Two Wars

DENVER – Syria is being wracked by two wars. One, between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and rebel groups like the Free Syrian Army, can be resolved only through a diplomatic solution – precisely the kind of solution that the peace talks in Vienna, involving a wide range of world powers and regional actors, are aiming to reach. The second, being waged by the Islamic State, will require a very different approach.

Of course, the Islamic State’s war is, in a sense, also a civil war – both between Sunnis and Shia and among Sunnis – and it is related to the struggle against Assad. But the Islamic State’s brutal terrorist attacks in Beirut and Paris (not to mention its fighters’ barbaric behavior within Syria and Iraq) make plain that there can be no talking to – much less compromising with – its leaders. No political, diplomatic, or territorial arrangement with such a group – whose fanatical ideas and vicious practices clash with all civilized societies’ fundamental norms – can be justified.

To be sure, diplomacy will be needed in this fight. Just as war is often an element of diplomacy, diplomacy can sometimes be an element of war. In the war against the Islamic State, diplomacy will be vital to galvanize an alliance of countries dedicated to the group’s complete eradication – which will, however, have to happen on the battlefield.

The Islamic State, all relevant countries must agree, has no legitimate role to play anywhere. Anyone, especially in the region, who attempts to parse the group’s objectives – in order, for example, to support its anti-Shia aims, if not its methods – does not belong in the fight. To paraphrase President George W. Bush, countries have a decision to make: they are either with us or they are with the terrorists.