Reports of increasing influence of extremist Islamic factions in the still stalemated Syrian civil war, fears about the possible use of chemical weapons, and new escalating tension between Israel and Syria may provide a context for finally ending the carnage. None of the nations supporting either side in the civil war stand to gain if the carnage continues. Most expectations are that the conflict’s current trajectory will lead eventually to the al-Assad regime’s downfall but, as in Iraq, also lead to a chaotic aftermath where extremist factions would play a major role with unpredictable outcomes in Syria and dangerous ripple effects on Syria’s neighbors, especially Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.
Some senators and policy analysts, including several who enthusiastically supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq, are eagerly urging the Obama administration to escalate U.S. military support for the rebels. Secretary of State Kerry’s visit to Moscow signals that the Obama administration may have decided to pursue a safer, saner course of diplomacy working with Russia and eventually with the U.N. Security Council to craft a united international initiative to propose and, hopefully, be prepared collectively to impose a plan for ending the conflict and implementing a political transition. Despite the failure of earlier diplomatic initiatives, in light of new dangers posed for all of the outside parties, a united international intervention may now be possible. Such an initiative would be very difficult for either the rebel coalition or the Syrian regime to reject.
The alternative of increasing U.S. military support for the rebels, including ideas of establishing “no fly zones” or “safe corridors” or “securing chemical weapons stockpiles,” runs the risks of requiring direct U.S. military involvement and contributing to the chaos without necessarily accomplishing the downfall of the al-Assad regime. Increased U.S. military support for the rebels would also run the risk of triggering increased Russian and/or Iranian military involvement in support of the regime, turning the disastrous civil war into an even more dangerous regional war.
The war in Syria is complicated and dangerous in part because it is multi-layered. At the conflict’s core is Syria’s version of the Arab Spring, i.e., popular democratic citizen revolt against a decades-old dictatorial regime. This internal Syrian conflict that pits Sunnis against ruling Alawites is complicated by the broader regional Sunni-Shiite conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Two additional layers have included a current version of the old Cold War conflict between the United States and Russia, and the newer conflict between the United States and Iran. Yet another layer in the civil war is conflict between extremist Salafist militants, some imported from outside Syria with connections to Al-Qaeda, and more mainstream Syrian religious and secular opponents of the Assad regime. With this degree of complexity and involvement by powerful outside parties, it is more likely that Syria will be completely torn apart, generating thousands more casualties and refugees, than that either side will decisively win.
The tragedy of the al-Assad regime’s violent response to the popular, initially mostly nonviolent, uprising and the ensuing horrific civil war is compounded by Turkish reports that Bashar al-Assad was willing to engage in negotiations for peace with Israel. Building on benchmark principles for peace developed in U.S. hosted Israeli-Syrian negotiations in 1996 and 2002, Turkey mediated indirect talks between Syria and Israel in 2008. The hopeful Turkish reports were confirmed in visits to Damascus in 2009 by Special Envoy George Mitchell and Senator John Kerry, then Chairman of the Senate Committee on International Relations. If the U.S. had made a determined effort to mediate and had succeeded, resolving the Syrian-Israeli conflict certainly would have caused a relaxation in the Syrian regime and society that might have led to a more rational, less repressive response to popular pressures for reform.
U.S. choices related to what to do now about Syria are stark. Sadly, most public debate is still focused on how or how much the Obama administration should step up aid to the rebels. There’s been almost no attention to the possibility of a new comprehensive diplomatic initiative to end the war. To have a realistic chance of success, such an international intervention would have to involve Russia — and Iran and China — as well as countries supporting the rebels. Twin goals of the intervention would be to halt the violence and achieve agreement on a political transition involving the rebels and elements of the current regime that would provide assurances for all of Syria’s diverse internal communities and for interests of the major outside parties. The current U.S. diplomatic initiative with Russia is worthy of public support, and should be pursued with creativity and determination.
Ron Young lives in Everett. He is consultant to the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Peace in the Middle East (NILI), and since 1982 has visited Syria a dozen times.