Stopping jihadis from taking over Syria could represent the only common goal between Syria’s ruling Alawites and the secular Sunni rebels. Shiite-related Alawites rightly fear an al Qaeda-like triumph in Syria as the worst possible outcome. There can be no doubt in their minds that Sunni extremists would make the mass killing of Alawites their number one priority. The secular leaders of the Syrian rebels, clustered in the exile group known as the Syrian National Council, also must worry about the extremist threat they themselves would face if the Assad government fell now. Remember, most Syrian Sunnis don’t have a history of religious radicalism. They don’t want rule by shari’a law any more than the Alawites do.
U.S. strategy must focus on building this common ground. Washington should want to ensure that neither its European nor its regional allies gave arms to groups suspected of being even slightly jihadi in nature. In particular, our Arab friends already sending arms must err even further on the side of great caution. Such restraint on our part would show the Alawites we care about their safety, a critical signal. Our negotiating efforts would follow along similar lines: yes, Assad would have to go. Yes, secular rebel leaders and the remaining Alawite leaders would agree to freeze the jihadis out of negotiations and governmental power. And yes, both secular Sunni and Alawite leaders would agree to share governmental power and to protect their own respective communities for the indefinite future. It’s not pretty or easy, but it is common ground.