Syrian endgame: Diplomacy, for once, may be the only option

John J. Metzler

PARIS — Spiraling sectarian violence, expanding regional destabilization, and the looming danger of proxy conflict between the United States and Russia, are among the dangers in the widening Syrian civil conflict which has taken over 93,000 lives. Equally an escalating humanitarian disaster continues to engulf a country where now approximately a third of the entire population is a refugee or internally displaced in their own country.

The ongoing battle between the ruling Assad family dictatorship and a wide spectrum of rebel groups, many of them Islamic fundamentalists, presents Western policymakers with the classic Hobson’s choice; should there be military intervention to oust the Assad regime by supporting the spectrum of Islamic rebels of which we really know little?

Syrian President Bashar Assad speak to the parliament in Damascus, in 2012.  /AP/SANA
Syrian President Bashar Assad speak to the parliament in Damascus, in 2012. /AP/SANA

Stating the obvious but overlooked, Syria was once controlled by the Ottoman Turks and then the French before post-WWII independence. Later, Syria’s rulers were supported by the Soviets and now Russia as well as the Islamic Republic of Iran. Assad also has backing from Lebanon’s Hizbullah militias. Opposition comes from factions of the loosely organized rebels ranging from genuinely disaffected Syrian military officers and defectors, as well as Al Qaida linked terrorists. There’s a fair sprinkling of foreign fighters from Muslim communities in France, Germany and Britain among the militants.

Syria’s other reality remains that the country of 21 million, while mostly Moslem, sees the traditional divide between a Sunni majority and a Shiite minority of which Assad belongs to the minority Alawite sect. Equally a once thriving Christian minority of about ten percent and the Druze form the fragile sectarian balance. This equilibrium is being upended as the war has militarily morphed along sectarian lines, and ethnic enclaves, especially the Sunni/Shiite rift.

The uneasy truth remains that Syria is not the stereotypical morality play as often presented in the media but a vicious civil war with atrocities on both sides, and with a clear potential to expand should the USA become more openly involved as the Obama administration proposes. The revolt is not about democracy or keeping the country’s fragile sectarian balance, but about power and a new wider Islamic order in the Mid-East.

Facing the backdrop of a massive political setback for America and Israel in the aftermath of Egypt’s Arab Spring revolution, and a far from conclusive outcome in tribally based Libya, the Obama administration was decidedly nervous about offering direct military aid to Syria’s rebels. After all toppling Syria’s secular based dictatorship may well open the floodgates to wider sectarian conflict, and an unstable Islamic fundamentalist regime in Damascus. Thus military involvement is not in the U.S. national interest.

Using both the rhetorical line that Assad “has lost all legitimacy” and should step down, to the far from conclusively proven “red line” of the regime having used chemical weapons (large stocks of which exist from the Soviet era), the Obama administration inches towards American involvement in a sectarian conflict of which we understand painfully little.

Interestingly, two of the biggest proponents of military intervention are Saudi Arabia and French President Francois Hollande.

Given the evolving situation on the ground, where the military balance seems to be shifting in the Damascus government’s favor, is this the time for the USA and some European allies to try to tip the balance back in favor of nebulous often-fundamentalist forces?

Diplomatic efforts by the USA and Europeans in the UN Security Council have fallen on fallow ground precisely because Russia and China have continued to provide support to the Syrian regime. Enduring UN efforts to promote peace talks among the factions have produced painfully little success. During the recent G-8 Summit, a sullen Russian President Vladimir Putin stopped short of supporting specific efforts to oust Assad.

In the meantime the killing continues and the humanitarian crisis worsens. The UN humanitarian coordinator Valerie Amos has proposed the largest UN refugee response program ever, nearly $5 billion to assist 4.2 million people internally displaced inside Syria as well as 1.6 million refugees in neighboring countries. Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan are hosting the largest number of those fleeing Syria. Bluntly stated, of Syria’s population of 21 million, one in three people has now been dislocated by the conflict.

So what to do? Expanding the military option now will only fuel the conflict and expand the humanitarian tide which destabilizes neighboring states. Solving the painfully complex sectarian war while in the American interest, may not be in Washington’s capacity or reach. The crisis needs an elusive political solution.

The U.S. and the Europeans must press for a serious peace conference, where Syrians bargain and posture with other Syrians without preconditions. This is not impossible, but certainly overdue. The alternatives are more predictable.

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for