One can only hope for the success of the recently announced U.S.-Russian plan to convene a conference aimed at finding a resolution to the conflict in Syria. As difficult as it will be for this effort to succeed, and as bitter a pill as it may be for the warring factions to swallow, it may represent the last chance to avert a greater disaster.
That all we are left with is a vague hope is itself distressing. But that is the unfortunate reality of Syria today.
I believe U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov when they say they are in agreement that the conflict must end and that they share the goals of defeating extremism and supporting regional stability. But implementing their consensus will not be as easy as was their ability to forge it.
The world has changed since the days of the Cold War, when the U.S. and the USSR operated through surrogates over whom they exercised influence. Make no mistake about it, Syria has become a proxy war, but neither the Americans nor the Russians are calling the shots. More significant roles are being played by competing regional groupings who are supporting, and even driving, their Syrian allies.
The details of this proposed U.S.-Russian conference remain undefined. But one thing is certain: if all the regional players who have a hand in Syria are not involved, the effort will surely fail. It will not be easy to secure the participation of both the regime in Damascus and the major groups representing the opposition. And it will be no small challenge to bring Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Hizbullah Iraq, and Jordan into the process.
To convene such an all-party conference will surely test the mettle of American and Russian diplomacy. It will require the expenditure of significant political assets. For those "hawks" who argue that such an effort is a waste of energy and resources, arguing instead for a quick-fix military escalation, one need only point to Iraq and Afghanistan. The bigger waste is to allow a continuation of the slaughter or to cause it to escalate.
What we have known about Syria since the beginning of this conflict remains true. There can be no victor and no vanquished. The regime and those who support it, out of conviction, desperation, or fear of the unknown, cannot be totally defeated, nor can the opposition, which has its own determined internal support base and their own legitimate fears (given the brutality already demonstrated by the regime), be subdued.
The clash goes beyond the battlefield to the visions that the different sides project for the future of the country, whether it be a participatory democracy, an Islamic state, or a secular bastion of Arab resistance against the machinations of the West and its allies. Sadly, all of these are or have become fantasies, at best. The Syria of old is forever gone; a democracy will not easily emerge from the breakdown of the old order; and a terrible price will be paid by Syria's minorities in fulfilling the dreams of religious extremists. But putting the rhetoric of the combatants aside, what this war has become is an ugly and bloody struggle for survival.
As a result, we are left today with the same choices we faced two years ago. We can continue this slow dance unto death, we can throw gasoline on the flames and accelerate the killing, or we can decide to put an end to the suffering of Syria's people by seeking a negotiated solution leading to the end of the regime and a phased transition of authority.
As I noted at the outset, with the U.S. and Russians in agreement we have only taken the first step. Now the hard work begins. It is likely that the regime in Damascus will attempt to define terms for their participation that will be unacceptable to the opposition. For its part, the opposition will most likely reject participation in any setting that includes the regime. But obstacles or rejection can't be the end of the story. The clear indication that this conflict is already spilling over beyond Syria's borders, threatening the stability of the entire region, make it imperative that real pressure be applied on both sides and their supporters to say "yes."
It is worth noting that all this plays out against a backdrop of rather frightening developments: conflicting reports of use of chemical weapons by the regime or elements of the opposition; Israel's unilateral assaults on Syrian installations in and around Damascus; massive increases in the flow of refugees into neighboring countries (it is estimated that one-fifth of all Syrians are now either in exile or internally displaced); deepening sectarian division in Lebanon and an escalation of Lebanese involvement in Syria's fighting; and growing bipartisan pressure in the U.S. calling on the Obama Administration to militarily support the opposition.
Instead of arguing against the search for a negotiated solution, all of these worrisome developments should cause us to pause and attempt to answer tough questions. Does America need to become engaged in another war in the heart of the Middle East? Will the region or the American people accept what this involvement will require in the long-term? Can the region absorb a collapse of the Syrian regime and state and the fragmentation that will follow? Can Lebanon and Jordan survive an escalation of Syria's war? Does anyone seriously believe in the fantastic notion that, at the end of the fighting and the defeat of the regime, extremist radical groups will be easily disarmed?
If the answers to any of these questions are "No," then it is imperative that the U.S.-Russian effort be supported and a negotiated solution be found. It will not be perfect, and it will be difficult for all parties to accept. But it will at least end the blood-letting, avert a deeper crisis, and put Syria on what will be a long, slow path of transition from authoritarian rule to a democratic future.