The Time has Come to Decide between the Political and Military Tracks in the Syrian Conflict

07/26/2013 02:40 pm ET | Updated Sep 25, 2013

The circle of involvement of so many players in the tragedy in Syria is widening to such an extent that it has come to resemble a blinding sandstorm. With the exception of innocent civilians, all players in the Syrian arena - directly, indirectly or by proxy - are guilty and bear part of the responsibility for this predicament.

Russia got Syria implicated by encouraging the ruling regime to act arrogantly and by misleading it to believe that it really can emerge victorious from this civil war. The United States got Syria implicated by refraining from playing its role as a superpower, and by signaling to Damascus that no one would stand in its way or clip its wings.

Iran got Syria implicated - in addition to Hezbollah and Lebanon - by entering as a direct military party to the armed conflict in Syria, with equipment, funds, and fighters, as well as with its proxy Hezbollah. Active members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) got Syria implicated when they intimated that they would arm the opposition, and then backed down to meet American demands. Some of them implicated it even more by believing that the "Afghanization" of Syria, in order to exhaust the regime and bring its downfall, was a practical and useful strategy, reminiscing of the "achievement" of the downfall of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Israel got Syria implicated by suggesting to the regime that it would represent a safety net for it. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime got Syria implicated in a bloodbath and a nightmare of division and possibly fragmentation, not only because he confronted the peaceful protests demanding reform with an iron fist, but also because he summoned armed extremism into his country, turning Syria into an arena for mutual attrition.

Al-Nusra Front and similar al-Qaeda affiliates got Syria implicated in a battle that does not concern the Syrian people in the first place, because the overwhelming majority of them do not have even the slightest connection to terrorism or to radical Islamism. The Syrian opposition also contributed to getting Syria implicated, with its divisions, its fragmentation, and the competition between its leaders. The UN Security Council got Syria implicated, not just through the BRICS countries, but also at the hand of Western countries. All are guilty, at varying degrees, and the time has come to gather one's assets and return to the strategy-drawing table with a little bit of realism and rationality. Indeed, burning Syria to the ground is an option that must be eliminated before the flames consume what is left of Syria, and spread to its neighborhood.

The time has come for the political and military tracks in the Syrian conflict to stop moving in parallel, racing against one another. The race to win military battles on the field in preparation for political rounds has become blatant in its lack of even the bare minimum at the ethical and humanitarian levels. The time has come to reject such a formula and choose between military victory and a political settlement. This is a decision that cannot be taken by the fighters alone, but rather by the players who are fighting by proxy, and by those who claim that there is nothing they can do about the conflict.

Let then the countries that claim to be standing against the regime and supporting the opposition, both Arab and Western, decide whether they favor a political solution or a military victory. There is no place left now for a gray area, over the dead bodies of Syria's children.

Thus, if their decision is not to coexist with Bashar al-Assad, if they are convinced that there is no way to reach an understanding with Iran over sharing influence in Syria, and if they have reached the conclusion that talk of a political solution and of sharing power in Syria is meaningless, the countries of the GCC and of the European Union, such as France and Britain, must stop procrastinating and support the Syrian opposition with weapons, equipment, and even fighters. There has been enough indecision and steps forward followed by steps backwards, and Syria must stop being implicated in a long-term war whose victims are civilians, men, women and children.

And if the United States - and its ally Israel - really does fear an Iranian victory in Syria that would alter the regional map, let then the US administration and Congress cease this false indecision, at times under the pretext of fearing Sunni extremists like Al-Nusra Front, and at others with this fear subsiding to give way to fear of Hezbollah, Iran's ally.

There is no need for indecision. The victory of the regime in Damascus - despite everything that is being said about the fact that the military victory of a regime over part of its people is not possible - would mean victory for Iran, Russia, and China in their battle against the West. More importantly, such a victory would mean that Syria and Lebanon would be held firmly by Iran at the strategic level, and that Iran would be ruling the two countries neighboring Israel.

Israel perhaps does not mind this at the end of the day, as it has had, historically speaking, a relationship of truce if not a covert alliance with Iran - and this perhaps explains the policies of the United States and Israel. If that is really what they have in mind, then Arab countries, and Gulf countries in particular, must return to the policy-drawing table and take decisions in light of such an equation - decisions that would not mislead the Syrian opposition and would not offer up the Syrian people as a scapegoat; decision that would signify a radical change in the way the war for Syria is being fought.

If, on the other hand, the conclusion reached is that there such a war is unwinnable, that there is no way to achieve military victory in the war in Syria, then the Arab countries concerned must gather their assets and adopt an alternative strategy that would be solely based on reaching a political solution, not on the formula of playing both tracks.

The first step of such a strategy should be to reach an understanding with Iran. It will immediately be said that there is no way to reach an understanding with Iran because what Iran wants is impossible. Indeed, what it wants is a dominant regional role as well as extraordinary influence over two of the most important Arab countries - Iraq and Syria, in addition to Lebanon. This is most likely true. Yet when the United States, Israel, Britain and France, and of course Germany, approve of Iran holding such a role in order to avoid confrontation with it, then Arab countries must decide whether they can abort what they perceive as going against their interests, and how to do so.

The time has come to decide between the options available, not by destroying Syria entirely in a proxy war of attrition, whatever may have been said about mutual exhaustion producing a victorious side and a defeated one. If the military track is the preferred choice, then arming the opposition represents a battle in the war. It is too late for the formula of breaking Tehran's back in the battle in Syria. Iran is staying in this war and is resolved for it not to become "its Vietnam", even if it were to turn into a quagmire for Hezbollah that would lead to the latter's "Vietnam". Hezbollah represents a strategic tool for Iran, but it does not represent its main nerve and can potentially be dispensed with, if the necessity were to arise.

Hezbollah has gotten into trouble with the European Union because of accusations leveled against it of perpetrating terrorist attacks in Bulgaria and in Cyprus. Yet it is its role in the fighting in Syria, into which Iran got it implicated, that has led to tipping the balance against it and to the EU adding Hezbollah's military wing to its list of terrorist organizations.

The United States is continuing to prepare files that focus on Hezbollah's economic wing, in parallel with the measures taken by the EU regarding its military wing. Yet neither of them has stopped dealing with a government in Lebanon of which Hezbollah is part, not just in order to safeguard Lebanon, but also to provide Hezbollah with a window to correct its course and turn into a political player that has its place and standing, instead of being a state above the state that would topple the decision to dissociate Lebanon from the war in Syria. At precisely this juncture, it would not be in Hezbollah's interest to marginalize, void, or obstruct Lebanese state institutions, because it would be, in the process, wasting an opportunity to distinguish between recognition of its political influence on the one hand, and its military wing on the other. Moreover, it would not be in Hezbollah's interest to allow for issues to be raised against it, which may well emerge if it continues to play a role in the fighting in Syria - issues that would fall under prosecution for war crimes. Hezbollah's interest dictates that that it should return to be Lebanese.

The promises of Lebanese politicians to overturn the decision issued by the EU will not yield any results. What caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati said about his resolve to work hard to overturn the decision will be met with the response: "put a stop to the violations of the decision to dissociate Lebanon from the conflict in Syria" - a decision that was taken by the Lebanese government and toppled by Hezbollah and Iran.

Iran is clear in its policy of making Syria the cornerstone of its regional ambitions, and it is willing to sacrifice all of Lebanon in order to win in Syria. It is pumping tremendous amounts of funds into this, funds which its economy under sanctions cannot bear - and this has raised questions about whether Russia could be the driving force and the true source of these funds, which would mean that it too, and not just Iran, is violating Security Council resolutions issued under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

Russia wants to wage its war against Islamic terrorism, as it considers it to be, in the Syrian arena, far from its cities and their inhabitants. It wants to ensure its dominance in natural gas exports. It wants a strategic foothold for itself. It wants to teach the West a lesson. And it wants most of all for the United States and the world to deal with it as a major power that will make use of all means available to it, including the obstruction of the UN Security Council. Russia wants, as is only natural, to protect its own interests. It is not in Syria's interest, as the regime's Ambassador to the UN Bashar Jaafari says, for a war to be waged against terrorism on behalf of the whole world, offering the Syrian people, Syria's cities, its archaeological sites and the future of its children in sacrifice. Let then the regime stop framing the civil war as one of combating terrorism.

What is happening in Syria is terrorism being generated which neither Russia nor the United States will be able to avoid, if this war were to continue - a war which, by being prolonged, has generated terrorism. Indeed, neither is the illusion of a victory for either side convincing, nor is the illusion of using armed players for mutual exhaustion a useful policy.

The time has come to stop using Syria as an arena for a war on terrorism and a war of attrition. It has become a moral duty for all those concerned to decide between the military and political tracks instead of playing on both.