I wish I could be optimistic about Geneva II, but I cannot. That it happened at all is good. But “good for what” remains unclear. Listening to the speeches at the opening session established quite convincingly that none of the participants were ready to deal with the reality of what has become the most horrific tragedy of this new century.
During the past three years, the Syrian people have been victimized by a cruel and unrelenting war. While the competing sides may argue over who is at fault and what should now be done, what remains indisputable are the cold hard numbers of those who have been killed or forced to flee from their homes. Less quantifiable, but still real, is the physical destruction of once beautiful neighborhoods and world heritage treasures, and the emotional destruction visited upon a generation of Syrian children who will bear the scars of this war for a generation.
Despite all of this, the fighting continues without letup with neither side willing or able to accept the responsibility of contributing to ending it. The people may be exhausted, but the regime and the opposition are not.
We are three years into this bloody mess and what should have been clear from the outset has now become certain. This conflict will not end with one side claiming a decisive victory. Neither the regime and its international sponsors, nor the opposition and the countries that support them will be able to win. That this simple fact is not, and maybe cannot be, accepted by either side is what keeps the conflict going.
While it is easy find fault with the combatants, equally at fault are those who have funded them, armed them, and provided them with political support without control or conditions. Continuing the fight and continuing to fuel the fight is worse than a fool’s errand, it is a crime.
Delusions abound. The fragmented and deeply divided opposition, represented at Geneva by a rump delegation, still claims to speak for the Syrian people. The reality on the ground speaks otherwise. They blame the U.S. for not supporting them and refuse to accept responsibility for their own disarray. Some of their elements continue to maintain that their revolution is democratic and pluralistic, but the main forces doing the fighting — even those who are now termed as “moderates” — are anything but. Among the main rebel forces are disciplined extremist groups that have committed deplorable acts against civilians. Even now the opposition coalition insists on the precondition that the regime must step aside, as if they would be in a position to govern in its stead.
For its part, the regime continues to speak of its “legitimacy”, but its behavior has, if anything, cost it the right to claim that mantle. It was a brutal dictatorship before the war began and its conduct during the conflict has rightly earned it the epitaph of “war criminal”.
In this context, it was especially galling to listen to the Syrian Foreign Minister in his opening address speak of the “will of the Syrian people,” lecturing the U.S. Secretary of State saying “No one, Mr. Kerry, has the right to withdraw legitimacy of the [Syrian] president other than the Syrians themselves.” He said this, I presume, with a straight face, ignoring the tens of thousands killed, the millions who have been forced to flee, and the cities that have been devastated — all supposedly in the vain effort to establish this claim of “legitimacy”.
Surely this regime has run its course. Just as surely, this opposition, such as it is, is not in a position to lead. Therein lies the core of the Syrian tragedy. It is not just that neither side can win, but that neither side deserves to win — nor can they, in any event, govern the country.
Syria and the Syrian people deserve better. Those who maintain that the culture of the Syrian people is open, tolerant, and progressive are right. But those qualities are fast fading. Three years of conflict have ushered in a new reality of fanaticism, violence, and the evil of sectarian hostility. Out of all this, it will hard to build the new Syria. But Syrians still deserve the chance.
I have never supported a war and find it difficult to do so now, but I find myself increasingly convinced that the U.S. and international community have a responsibility to act and may need to use force to help end this conflict. If Geneva II fails to make progress toward any meaningful compromise, then I believe action must be taken.
There are firm demands that should be presented to all sides. The regime must stop its aggressive assault on “rebel-held positions” in populated areas. The destruction created by attacks on neighborhoods and the suffering that has been inflicted on innocent civilians is unacceptable. The opposition must be pressed to consolidate its ranks by becoming more inclusive and adopting a non-sectarian agenda for change. And they must purge their ranks of sectarian extremists. Both sides must agree to begin serious negotiations, without preconditions, to implement the transitional authority envisioned in the Geneva I formula.
Establishing a power-sharing transitional government will not be easy. It will take time. But both sides must be disabused of the notion that they can govern alone. The opposition has its base, as does the regime. If they want to be part of Syria’s future and if their funders and supporters want to be seen as making a constructive contribution to a resolution to this conflict, then they must agree to such a power-sharing arrangement. There is no other way.
If this does not occur within a defined period of time, then the U.S. may find it necessary to mobilize international support to launch strikes in Syria against both the regime and positions held by extremist groups. The strikes would in all likelihood need to be significant and sustained enough to change the calculations of the combatants. The Russians may choose to be part of this solution or not. But we are long past the time when the fate of Syria should be decided by a Russian veto.
Simultaneously, the U.S. would also need to lead an effort to mobilize a post-agreement peace-keeping force and a reconstruction and resettlement fund for Syria and its millions of refugees and internally displaced persons. Even after a power-sharing arrangement is reached, international support will be important to give the Syrians the time they need to make it work.
This degree of U.S. involvement may not be welcomed by many Americans and it will likely be rejected in many parts of the Arab World. But enough is enough. Something must be done to help end this Syrian nightmare.