Despite the logic behind these failed efforts, to continue to pin hopes on this passive diplomacy under UN auspices seems problematic. It grants the governing Assad regime time and space to continue to use means at its disposal to destroy its internal enemy, relying on high technology weaponry and indiscriminate tactics on a vast scale that are killing and terrifying far more civilians than combatants. Bombarding residential neighborhoods in Syrian cities with modern aircraft and artillery makes the survival of the regime appear far more significant for the rulers than is any commitment to the security and wellbeing of the Syrian people and even the survival of the country as a viable whole. It is deeply delegitimizing, and is generating a growing chorus of demands for indicting the Assad leadership for international crimes even while the civil war rages on. This criminal behavior expresses such an acute collective alienation on the part of the Damascus leadership as to forfeit the normal rights enjoyed by a territorial sovereign. These normal rights include the option of using force in accord with international humanitarian law to suppress an internal uprising or insurgency, but such rights do not extend to the commission of genocidal crimes of the sort attributable to the Assad regime in recent months. Although it must be admitted that the picture is complicated by the realization that not all of the criminal wrongdoing is on the regime side, yet the great preponderance is. The rebel forces, to be sure, are guilty of several disturbing atrocities. This is sad and unfortunate, as well as politically confusing so far as taking sides is concerned. Overall, it adds to the victimization of the people of Syria that is reaching catastrophic proportions because it makes more difficult the mobilization of international support for concerted action.
Essentially, the world shamelessly watches the Syrian debacle in stunned silence, but it is fair to ask what could be done that is not being done? So far no credible pro-active international scenario has emerged. There are sensible suggestions for establishing local ceasefires in the considerable areas in the countryside under the control of rebel forces, for supplying food and medical supplies to the population by means of protected ‘humanitarian corridors,’ and for taking steps to improve the woeful lot of Syrian refugees currently facing inadequate accommodations and unacceptable hardships in Lebanon and Jordan. Such steps should be taken, but are unlikely to hasten or alter outcome of the conflict. Can more be done?
I would further recommend a broad policy of support for civil society activists within Syria and outside who are dedicated to a democratic inclusive governing process that affirms human rights for all, and promises constitutional arrangements that will privilege no one ethnic or religious identity and will give priority to the protection of minorities. There are encouraging efforts underway by networks of Syrian activists, working mainly from Washington and Istanbul, to project such a vision as a program in the form of a Freedom Charter that aspires to establish a common platform for a future beneficial for all of Syria’s people. The odds of success for this endeavor of politics from below seem remote at present for these activist undertakings, but they deserve our support and confidence. As often is the case when normal politics are paralyzed, the only solution for a tragic encounter appears to be utopian until it somehow materializes and becomes history. This dynamic was illustrated by the benign unraveling of South African apartheid in the early 1990s against all odds, and in opposition to a consensus among experts that expected emancipation of the victims of apartheid to come, if at all, only through success in a long and bloody war.
Another initiative that could be taken, with great positive potential, but against the grain of current of Western and especially American geopolitics, would be to take the Iran war option off the table. Such a step would almost certainly have major tension-reducing effects in relation to regional diplomacy, and would be a desirable initiative to take quite independent of the Syrian conflict. The best way to do this would be to join with other governments in the region, including Iran, to sponsor a comprehensive security framework for the Middle East that features a nuclear weapons free zone, with an insistence that Israel join in the process. Of course, for the United States to advocate such moves would be to shake the foundations of its unconditional endorsement of whatever Israel favors and does, and yet it would seem over time even to be of greater benefit to Israeli security than an engagement in a permanent struggle to maintain Israeli military dominance in the region while denying the right of self-determination to the Palestinian people. If American leaders could finally bring themselves to serve the national interest of the United States by acting as if the peace and security of Israel can only be achieved if the rights of the Palestinian people under international law are finally realized it would have many likely positive effects for the Middle East and beyond. As matters now stand, the dismal situation in the region is underscored by the degree to which such prudent proposals remain in the domain of the unthinkable, and are kept outside the disciplined boundaries of ‘responsible debate.’
If the imagination of the political is limited to the ‘art of the possible’ then constructive responses to the Syrian tragedy seem all but foreclosed. Only what appears to be currently implausible has any prospect of providing the Syrian people and their nation with a hopeful future, and we need the moral fortitude to engage with what we believe is right even if we cannot demonstrate that it will prevail in the end.