What Should the U.S. Do Now About Syria?

What Should the U.S. Do Now About Syria?

An op-ed

Increasing influence of extremist Islamic factions in the still stalemated Syrian civil war, fears about possible use of chemical weapons, and new heightened 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 Bashar al-Assad’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 President Obama to escalate U.S. military support for the rebels.  To its credit, the Obama Administration is exploring a safer, saner course of diplomacy with Russia to organize an international conference, possibly with endorsement by the U.N. Security Council, 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 risks for all of the outside parties, a united international intervention may now be possible.  Such an initiative would be very difficult for the rebel coalition or the Syrian regime to reject.

Increasing U.S. military support for the rebels, including ideas of establishing “no fly zones” or “safe corridors” or “securing chemical weapons stockpiles” run serious 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 also runs 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., a popular democratic citizen revolt against the decades-old dictatorial regime.  This internal Syrian conflict that pits majority Sunnis against ruling Alawites is complicated by the broader regional Sunni-Shiite conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran.  Minority Syrian Christian and Druze communities are caught in the middle of the conflict. 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 al-Assad regime. Added to these layers recently is an escalating proxy war between Israel and Hezbollah. 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 is compounded by Turkish reports that Bashar al-Assad was prepared 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 Foreign Relations.  If the U.S. had made a determined effort to mediate and had succeeded, resolving the Syrian-Israeli conflict would have caused a relaxation in Syrian society and in the regime 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 has been focused on how or how much the Obama Administration should step up aid to the rebels.  Attention to the possibility of a new diplomatic initiative to end the war has been slow to develop.  To have a realistic chance of success, such an international intervention would have to involve Russia – and Iran and China – as well as the major countries supporting the rebels.  Goals of the intervention should be halting the violence, inserting a robust peacekeeping force, and achieving 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 the legitimate interests of the major outside parties.  Rather than more arms being provided to either side, the current U.S. diplomatic initiative with Russia to end the war should be pursued with creativity and determination.  It’s an initiative worthy of broad, bipartisan public support.

*Ron Young is Consultant to the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Peace in the Middle East (NILI), of which the United Church of Christ and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) are members.  Since 1982, Mr. Young has visited Syria a dozen times.