The civil war in Syria has now cost 70,000 lives, as forces loyal to President Bashir al Assad and rebel forces with an increasing militant Islamist component blaze away at each other, leaving sections of Damascus, Aleppo, and other Syrian cities and towns in smoking ruins. The number of refugees is now estimated to be around a million.
Yet there is a small opening toward a possible peaceful solution. This is an opportunity that must not be lost.
The fighting in Syria began in when peaceful demonstrations against Assad's authoritarian regime were violently repressed, and the opposition responded with violence also. As the fighting has continued, various outside forces have interfered. The Arab monarchies of the Gulf area have been bankrolling the rebellion, and especially the extremist Sunni Islamists in its front ranks. The United States and its European NATO allies plus Turkey, while not wanting to put "boots on the ground" in Syria, have been providing moral and economic support to the rebels. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was very visible in trying to organize a new government for Syria through the "Friends of Syria" organization, an activity many would say should be strictly left to the Syrian people alone. Russia, China, and Iran, not wanting to see another "regime change" scenario like the one in Libya take place in such a crucial geographical spot have been opposing this outside interference.
As the fight has developed it has become clearer that am increasing, role is being played by militant Islamist fighters of the Al Nusra Front, which is closely aligned with Al Qaeda, and other hard line Islamist groups. The worry is now that should Assad be overthrown, a radical Islamist regime would come to power, and would put an end to positive characteristics of Syrian society such as relative religious tolerance and basically secular governmental and social institutions. Many in Syria and elsewhere fear that such a regime, besides imposing harsh Sharia law, would come down hard, perhaps with genocidal consequences, on religious minorities in Syria, including Christians but also the 2.6 million strong Alawite branch of Shia Islam, to which Assad and his family belong.
In the United States, there are now two positions being pushed to prevent Syria from being transformed into an Al Qaeda ruled state and a base for terrorist attacks against the rest of the world. One is that the Obama administration should now intervene directly in the Syrian war, at least arming those sectors of the rebellion which are not Islamists, so that as well as fighting to oust Assad, they can also fight to prevent their Islamist allies from taking power after Assad goes. This point of view is promoted, for example, by Vance Serchunk, a former aide to ex Senator Joe Lieberman (I- Connecticut), thinks that the US should bomb the Assad regime to help the rebels win, and arm "moderates" among the rebels so that after Assad goes, they can defeat the Islamists.
Serchunk fears increased Russian and Iranian influence in the area more than he does the seizure of power in Damascus by Al Qaeda clones, so he is against the U.S. coordinating with Moscow to try to find a peaceful solution.
This sort of thing is what the great Marxist sociologist C. Wright Mills called "crackpot realism". It relies on the idea that the U.S., by intervening, can make sure that "moderates," of whose strength we have no clear idea, if armed and supported by the United States, can fill the vacuum in Syria. But an outcome equally or more likely is that in spite of all the U.S. military's drones and bombs, the Islamists sweep both Assad and the moderate oppositionists off the stage, with disastrous consequences to all but themselves, and for the Syrian people.
The other approach would be to coordinate with Russia, China and others to try to find a peaceful exist before it is too late. On February 20, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, together with the Arab League, made a new offer to broker a negotiated solution. Originally seen as allied with Assad, Russia has in recent weeks criticized both the Syrian Government and the rebels for their intransigence, which Lavrov points out can only lead to mutual ruin. Among the rebel groups and leaders, Moaz al Khatib, leader of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, has expressed willingness to enter negotiations. Next week, the Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid al-Moallem, will be headed to Moscow for talks.
The Islamists and some others denounced el Khatib's initiative, and Assad keeps saying that he will not step down, but an opening toward a new negotiated solution seems to be in the offing.
Also the U.N. Special Representative in the Syria situation, Lakhdar Brahimi, has been reappointed, an encouraging sign.
There are many obstacles, but also signs of hope. A lot depends on the position of the United States. So far, while indirectly supporting the rebels, the Obama administration and most of the European NATO states have been wary of directly arming them, because of the probability of such arms falling into the hands of the jihadi extremists. But if Obama and his new Secretary of State, John Kerry, listen to the crackpot realists and plunge into the Syrian maelstrom further, it would greatly harm chances for a peaceful negotiated solution.
We need to speak out to prevent this.
Photo: Smoke rises from a damaged building in Aleppo, Syria. Manu Brabo/AP