All well and good. But what should we do instead?
I'll start by providing the answer given by my friends Gabe Huck and Theresa Kubasack, the founders of the Iraqi Student Project, who lived in Syria for half a decade, and stayed in Damascus long after car bombings became a weekly event:
Now, for the longform:- Simply recognize how much we have lost with the Syrian people since their great rejoicing in Obama’s election in 2008. Ask how we lost this glimmer of hope.- Lean on our friends, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar and Turkey, to stop fanning flames, especially but not only with weapons and money to the opposition in Syria.- Stop being of any assistance in arms going into Syria through Turkey.- Assist far more with aid to Syrians living in refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.- Stop demonizing Iran and recognize they have to be included in any regional effort to end the violence.- Stop Israel from doing anything to any country including Gaza and the West Bank.- End sanctions against Syria on non-military goods.- understand how failure to stand up to Islamophobia in the US destroys our credibility.
It may well be too late to save Syria. Oceans of blood have been spilled by the regime. Huge districts in Syria's largest cities are in ruins. Nearly a million people have fled the country. By one count, there are over a thousand independent militias fighting in Syria, most of them militant Islamist, all competing for weapons and territory. The Kurds have already gained a large measure of autonomy, and are clashing with Arab rebels. Videos are popping up online of little kids singing about how they want to kill all the Alawites and all the Shiites (i.e., 15% or so of Syria's population), cheered on by huge crowds of adults. The modern state of Syria was an artificial creation of the French occupiers, and there may be no way to put it back together now that it has been shattered.
Paradoxically, though, it is precisely this horrific desolation that is now inspiring calls for peace from senior figures in both the regime and the opposition.
In December already, Bashar's vice president called for a peace settlement and a unity government, saying that the army could not win the war. (In an army-centric country like Syria, that's a huge deal.) Earlier this month, the leader of the opposition Syrian National Coalition and the regime's "minister of reconciliation" both offered to meet with their opponents on certain conditions. On Monday, the regime's foreign minister for the first time offered to negotiate even with groups that are actively fighting the government, "because we believe that reforms will not come through bloodshed but only through dialogue."
And then, last Wednesday, as I was trying to write this post, I got interrupted by Russia - the regime's biggest foreign backer - and the Arab League - which expelled the regime - offering together to host peace talks.
These steps are encouraging. But they're unlikely to be enough. The Syrian Civil War is not just about Syrians fighting each other; it's about Americans and Russians and Iranians and Saudis and Turks and Chinese fighting each other. They're simply using the Syrians to do it.
The Sunni powers of the Middle East - Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar - have spent the last decade worrying about the ascent of Shiite Iran, whose support for Islamic revolution and restive Shiite populations across the region threatens their own power. The Assad regime is Iran's only Arab ally, and TSAQ (as I will refer to them from now on) are intent on taking it down, and replacing it with a Sunni regime that will get in line. (Syria is majority Sunni.)
Thus, even if the current leaders of the Syrian opposition signed on to a peace process, TSAQ could simply shift their support to groups who were willing to carry on the fight. Finding them won't be hard.
The U.S. is going along with all this, because, obviously, we want to take Iran down a notch too. Our policymakers no doubt find this very easy to justify to themselves. After all, Assad is very bad. And so is the Iranian regime. And it's not as if we're actually killing anyone ourselves...
As for Russia, the Arab world was once its domain, its Cold War proxy against the U.S.'s Israel. Today, Syria is the only Arab country left in the Russian camp. The rest have flipped to the U.S./TSAQ camp. Syria is also the location of Russia's only port in the Mediterranean Sea. Russia is also in the midst of a decades-long war with Sunni Islamic terrorists in Chechnya, and is not eager to see Sunni Islamic terrorists take over just one and a half countries south of them. The Russians probably know that supporting Assad is a losing battle, but with the U.S./TSAQ pursuing a winner-takes-all strategy in Syria, why on earth would they stop?
With the current dynamic, neither side in this proxy war has any incentive to change course - even though this course will end the in the destruction of Syria. The U.S. must be the one to change course. It can pursue its eternal quest for Middle East hegemony and deal a(nother) crushing blow to Iran, or it can save Syria. It can't do both.
If the U.S. truly wants to make peace in Syria, the president needs to get on the phone with Vladimir Putin stat. He should give assurances of the U.S.'s respect for Russian interests in Syria, and ask for help in setting up a peace process between the two sides in Syria. Russia should be amenable to this - they've already offered as much, and a political settlement in Syria is the only way to keep their influence there.
Russia can use its influence with the Assad regime to support those regime elements in favor of peace. Meanwhile, the president needs to get on the line with the leaders of TSAQ, and ask them to do the same with the opposition. Heavy arms can no longer flow with abandon into Syria to any group willing to fight the regime. Support must be restricted to groups that sign on to the peace process and are committed to minority rights in Syria - and TSAQ must help bring groups that aren't to heel. Persuading TSAQ will be difficult, but not impossible. One imagines that the long-term consequences of turning Syria into Somalia are starting to dawn on an Iran-obsessed TSAQ.
What should a peace deal look like? I'm gonna go out a on a limb here and say irrelevant. Whatever it takes to stop the killing for five minutes and let people think rationally again. Syria is slouching towards genocide. In a situation like that, there's no such thing as a bad peace. Bashar leaving is a given. He can crash on my couch. As for the rest, the U.S. and Russia should figure out an agreement that is minimally acceptable to both sides and then push it hardcore until it's done.
For posterity, here's a video of a much smarter man than me (the Lebanese-Christian AUB Professor Habib Malik) saying pretty much the same thing nine months ago. 50,000 dead Syrians haven't proved him wrong:
Last week, Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Ravlov, said of the Syrian Civil War, “Neither side can allow itself to rely on a military solution to the conflict, because it’s a road to nowhere, a road to mutual destruction of the people.”
Sure, he's a flunky for a self-obsessed, rock-band-jailing petro-tyrant. Isn't it embarrassing that he's the one saying this, while our State Department prattles on about "the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people" every week?
By God's grace, it may not be too late.