In the study of conflict resolution there is an exercise called the "helicopter perspective" where you "hover" over a problem with some distance in order to obtain a better perspective. It is a useful tool though I found that it was also very useful to hover over time instead of space.
Take the Syrian civil war for example and look at the conflict through increments of months or years. Where do things stand 24 months into the conflict? You will quickly realize three things. First that the conflict is getting more violent with each passing year; second, that it is getting more complicated. And third, that it's dragging other major players into the conflict. There is a very clear trend here and if you were to convert that data into graphs and pie charts and the such, you would find that the flow is all unidirectional: heading into the crimson red danger zone.
It is important to look at this conflict, or any other conflict for that matter, through time because it demonstrates that it does not require a major event to spark a major conflict. It's the minor sparks that typically do it, which at the outset are difficult to interpret correctly. But with the luxury of moving back and forth in time, so to speak, it helps clarify where the conflict came from and where it is heading.
When a Serbian anarchist shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo in 1914, little did he imagine it would plunge Europe into one of the world's bloodiest conflicts in human history, claiming about 37 million casualties; 16 million deaths and 20 million wounded; lead to the division of the Ottoman Empire, the redrawing of the maps of Europe and the Middle East as the secret agreement between Sykes and Picot divvied up the spoils of the Ottomans into British and French zones of influence.
Equally unpredictable was the spark that ignited the war engulfing Syria today after a group of school children, perhaps in a moment of teenage rebellion, scribbled graffiti criticizing the Syrian president one afternoon on their way home from school in the town of Deraa. Their subsequent arrest and torture by the thuggish security forces led to protests by the townspeople and a series of repressions and counter protests ensued, developing into a country-wide struggle for greater freedom.
Now scratch the surface of any Middle Eastern society and you very quickly find hints and traces of religious affiliation, sectarianism, tribal links, clannish loyalty and family belonging. Each taking precedence over the notion of national identity. And Syria is no different.
Before long the clashes in Syria turned into a fight between the Alawite-dominated government and the majority Sunni population. The ferocity shown by the authorities in putting down the revolt had the reverse effect. Instead of frightening the people into submission it solidified their determination to fight the system. What had begun as peaceful protests quickly turned violent as the opposition began arming itself in the face of such harsh repression from the government.
Two years into the conflict, 100,000 killed, many more wounded, close to two million refugees and still no end in sight, other than the rising violence and the gradual but inevitable involvement of surrounding countries, followed by that of regional players and eventually, that of international powers. If the current trend continues the end result is terrifying.
Again, the involvement of outside forces began at a modest level but before long drew in the full political and military support of third parties. Overwhelmed by the Syrian government's superior armaments, the Sunnis called out for help to their coreligionists in neighboring countries.
Regional powers like Saudi Arabia and financial powerhouse Qatar began arming and supporting the rebellion. The conflict quickly turned into a sectarian war with jihadists from around the world pouring in to fight the forces loyal to Assad.
With outside help coming in to reinforce the rebels, President Assad turned to his friends and allies for help. There were few friends left but those remaining were influential.
Political support came form Moscow and Tehran while the Lebanese Shiite militia, Hezbollah, sent in thousands of fighters that helped relieve the overstretched and combat tired Syrian army. That helped turn the tide of the war in favor of the regime.
Tehran also promised Assad that it would not let him fall, even if it meant sending Revolutionary Guards to help prop up the regime in Damascus.
As the fighting continues what is becoming apparent is that first, there can be no clear-cut victor. And second, there is need for an innovative solution as the situation cannot return to the status quo ante. That is just unimaginable. After so much destruction and so many deaths neither side can accept to go back to where they were antebellum.
That gives the actors in this very tragic affair three options; One, the status quo ante, which as we just said, it not a solution. Two, to move forward, and that requires that the protagonists have the ability to sit down and discuss a peaceful way out of the conflict. That is not currently the case in Syria because:
The Syrian government is currently in a position of power. Therefore why would it discuss its own demise when it is in a position of strength? At the same time the rebels are in a weak position and have no bargaining chips to put on the table. And finally a clear-cut victory is hardly desirable, other than by the two sides fighting it out.
Just as the U.S. and the Europeans are not going to allow the total destruction of the opposition, neither are Russia or Iran going to allow the complete destruction of the Assad regime.
The other option, and regretfully the one that seems to be the only viable solution for the moment, is to continue as is, but from what we have seen in our "time travel", the history of the conflict clearly shows that the conflict can only get progressively worse. If we were able to time-travel forward we would have quickly seen that left to continue, as it is, the war will have very grave consequences on the security of the region and of the world. Remember the spillover from Afghanistan when the war ended and there were thousands of mujahideen fighters emerged with nowhere to go?
The same will apply in Syria. Where will all these jihadis end up? The next logical landing points for them are Lebanon and Jordan: the front and back doors to Israel. While finding a solution may be difficult, it is not impossible and it sure beats having to deal with threat once they show up at the gates of Beirut and Jerusalem.
It may be already too late but if Russia and the United States can still muster the political clout backed up my military muscle, they should impose an end to the conflict rather than wait until the jihadi -- currently on a killing spree in Syria -- potentially make their way to Lebanon and Jordan. When they show up at the gates of Jerusalem, it may be too late.
Now can we talk peace?
Claude Salhani is a political analyst specializing in the Middle East, terrorism and politicized Islam. He is editor of ArabSpringNow.com. He tweets @Claudesalhani.