Chris Toensing is editor of Middle East Report, published by the Middle East Research and Information Project.
The appalling civil war in Syria is well into its third year. With upwards of 70,000 dead, countless numbers maimed and injured, and millions of refugees, there are recurrent calls for the United States to “do something” to end the mayhem. That “something” is usually defined as military intervention — imposing a no-fly zone, arming the rebels, even sending the Marines.
The Obama administration should have the wisdom to resist these calls. There are other “somethings” that have a better chance of doing good.
The reports from both the Syrian battlefield and the corridors of U.S. power have been confusing of late. One week the rebels are said to be advancing. The next, the regime’s forces are said to be regaining lost ground with the help of Hezbollah fighters and Iran.
One week, Secretary of State John Kerry is meeting with the Russians to jump-start peace talks. The next, State Department officials are leaking word of Iranian troops in Syria to drum up congressional support for sending “lethal aid” to the rebellion.
It’s hard to tell, but reports indicate that the White House is laying the groundwork for a more belligerent stance.
There’s already plenty of external meddling in Syria — some by Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia to bolster the regime and some by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to overthrow it. The flow of armaments and money have predictably prolonged and intensified the fighting, without tipping the scales decisively.
“Lethal aid” from Washington and Europe would have the same ill effects, while enhancing the danger that the Syrian civil war will explode into regional conflagration.
Syrian society is divided, not right down the middle, but badly enough that neither side can hope for a military victory that doesn’t bring consequences too horrible to contemplate. The only solution to the Syrian conflict is a political one.
At this moment, that means a ceasefire. In the medium and long term, that means comprehensive negotiations over the shape of a future Syria. Such talks will undoubtedly be protracted and full of painful compromise, but the alternative is indefinite continuation of the present cataclysm. Or worse.
It’s possible to envision a UN peacekeeping force in the future, but only after the combatant parties have made a peace to keep.
Kerry and his diplomatic corps should be working overtime to secure a ceasefire and then to support a negotiation process with a chance to succeed. Such a process will have to involve Iran, a Syrian regime ally that the United States will have to stop threatening.
Meanwhile, Washington should be marshaling the world’s resources to care for Syrian refugees, who face the prospect of lengthy exile before they feel it is safe to return home. Donors at a United Nations conference pledged $1.5 billion for this purpose in January, but only a fraction of that amount has been collected.
Of course, Washington can’t wave a magic wand to bring these initiatives to fruition. The Syrian regime and rebels have to abandon mad dreams of military triumph. They have to cease and desist from their repulsive tactics of sowing sectarian fear.
Such outsiders as Russia, in particular, have to push the regime to accept the reality that it will never again rule Syria. But when the White House entertains talk of military intervention, the incentives for all these actors run the opposite way.
Hawks love to throw around the term “isolationist” to describe anyone skeptical that all the world’s problems can be solved by the purity of American arms. Over the last decade or two, they have succeeded in twisting the meaning of “intervention” as well to indicate some level of direct military engagement.
But stepped-up diplomacy and humanitarian aid isn’t “doing nothing.” It’s “doing something” that at least won’t do additional harm to the Syrian people who have already suffered so much. And it holds out the hope that we may perhaps help them without adding to the destruction of their country.
Chris Toensing is editor of Middle East Report, published by the Middle East Research and Information Project. MERIP.org