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Can We Stop a Civil War in Syria?

Outside powers should stop military involvement in the Syrian crisis and support new diplomatic initiatives.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.


Syria is close to full-scale civil war. If the conflict escalates further, as former UN Secretary-General and current envoy of both the UN and the Arab League Kofi Annan noted, “Syria is not Libya, it will not implode; it will explode beyond its borders.”

The human cost of this conflict is incalculably high. It’s not surprising that the normal human reaction is “we’ve got to do something!” But what is needed is serious diplomacy – not an army or air force action. U.S./NATO military intervention didn’t bring stability, democracy or security to Libya, and it certainly is not going to do so in Syria.

Despite his government’s history of brutal repression, Bashar al-Assad still enjoys support from parts of Syria’s business elites, especially in Damascus and Aleppo, and some in minority communities (Christian, Shi’a, others) whom the regime had long cultivated. The opposition was divided from the beginning over whether massive reform or the end of the regime was their goal. It divided further when part of the opposition took up arms, and began calling for international military intervention. The non-violent opposition movement for freedom and democracy, which still rejects calls for military intervention, survives, but under extraordinary threat.

Kofi Annan has proposed new negotiations including the Syrian regime’s supporters, Iran and Russia, as well as those western, Arab and regional governments backing the armed opposition. So far the U.S. has rejected the proposal, at least regarding Iran, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saying that Tehran is part of the problem in Syria and thus can’t be part of the solution. The current UN secretary-general, Ban ki-Moon, who frequently reflects Washington’s interests, further undercut the potential of his own envoy’s proposal, saying that Assad has “lost all legitimacy” – diplomatic code for “we don’t have to talk to him.”

Certainly the regime has committed brutal atrocities against civilians, potentially including war crimes. The armed opposition is also responsible for attacks leading to the deaths of civilians. It is increasingly difficult to confirm who may be responsible for each attack. The UN monitors have been pulled from the field. The regime has allowed a few more foreign journalists to enter Syria, but restrictions remain and the fighting in many areas means they are often unable to get reliable information. The regime is clearly responsible for more attacks with heavy weapons, including tanks and artillery, but it is also clear that the anti-government forces are being supplied with increasingly heavy weapons – paid for by Qatar and Saudi Arabia and coordinated by Turkey and the CIA. Indications are growing of well-armed outside terrorist forces operating in Syria as well.

Accountability for human rights violations and war crimes on all sides, whether in national or international jurisdictions, is crucial – but stopping the current escalation of violence and avoiding all-out war must come first.


Syria is erupting in a region still seething in the aftermath of the U.S. war in Iraq. Most U.S. troops and mercenaries have left Iraq, but the war’s legacy of destruction and instability will last for generations. That legacy includes the sectarian divide the U.S. invasion and occupation imposed in Iraq – and as that divide spreads across the region, the threat of increasing sectarianism in Syria looms. Although the Assad regimes – from father Hafez’s rise to power in 1970 through his son Bashar’s rule since 2000 – have always been ruthlessly secular, Syria is becoming a poster-country for sectarian strife. The ruling Assad clan are Alawites (a form of Islam related to Shi’ism), ruling over a country with a large Sunni majority. Already, alongside the global interests colliding in Syria, a Sunni-Shi’a proxy war is taking shape between Saudi Arabia/Qatar and Iran, each side backing opposing Syrian forces.

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