07/02/2014 07:46 pm ET Updated Sep 01, 2014

The Honorable Thing to Do Is Kill Someone: Defeating Men's Culture of Honor to Overcome the Syrian Catastrophe

First the bad news: a fracture in the Middle East is looming. There is a fracturing of states along sectarian lines that has been funded and instigated by a variety of men around the Middle East and beyond. There is a radicalization both of dictators and their violence, on one side, (Sisi far worse than Mubarak, and Assad the ophthalmologist committing massive war crimes), and religious extremists on the other, with their crucifixions and intent on destroying states and kingdoms as such. This has made for impossible choices to most innocent Middle Easterners who may retreat into sectarian safe havens that only guarantee more fracturing and violence.

There is a hidden root to this negative spiral, and that root is men's practice of honor killing. The way in which numerous women suffer from honor killings at the hands of their families is well documented, but I am not referring to that.

The Syrian catastrophe begins with a strange Alawite family. Meet the Assads. This is a family that came to power through a violent coup in 1966, undoing the emergence of democratic parties in Syria. Colonialist interference and Cold War divisions aided the emergence of the strong men of the Middle East, but Syria is a special case due to the talent for brutality of the Assads. The Assad family began its leadership of Syria with violence and continued that way. Alawites, persecuted for centuries by the dominant Sunni Islamic world, were cajoled by the family to seize the historic opportunity to gain power and prominence. But what the Assads did was turn Alawites into a minority force that would have to fight to its death in order to survive, hated and feared due to the practices of the police state. After the family killed tens of thousands of Sunni's in Hama in 1982, the only way to rule the majority Sunni was with a brutal iron fist. I remember passing through Hama accidentally in a car with Alawites, this was in 2006. The terror on their faces....

When the Arab Spring hit Syria in 2011 many of us were optimistic at how nonviolent the demonstrations were, how respectful to Assad the son. The demonstrations targeted only corruption, no indictment of this family despite decades of repression. But what the demonstrators failed to anticipate was that for Maher Assad and others, even the act of demonstrating was an unacceptable assault on their honor. They had to hit back hard, and hit back at children in particular, to completely subjugate the masses, to ingrain in every family's imagination the image of children dragged out of the house to be tortured and killed before their families.

This was the first bit of male honor to generate the spiraled descent, the insult to the security state by the demonstrations, the insult to Maher Assad and family. The second instance of male honor that created this downward spiral was the reaction of surrounding Sunni states, notably Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Assad was already on the outs with the Gulf states, as a client of Iran, but also for the ways in which he openly insulted the Sunni leaders in the Gulf.

Now the Turkish Prime Minister to his credit sent his foreign minister on at least 20 missions to try to persuade Assad to show some restraint. Nothing helped. But then the Prime Minster was insulted, and so he opened up the Turkish border wide for every jihadi on the planet to descend on Syria. Between the dishonored Gulf Sunni states and their hard cash for Sunni extremists, Turkey's open border, and Khameini's determination to support Assad no matter what he does, the stage was set for catastrophe.

The good people of Syria became overwhelmed with state war crimes supported by Russia and Iran on one side, and the jihadis pouring over the border to defend Sunni honor. All these jihadis were determined to rescue the honor of Sunni's. Meanwhile, Russian President Putin was satisfied that he had recovered his hurt honor after he lost Libya to the United States invasion.

So lets see how many men we have here and their honor. The murderous Assad men who began it all by torturing nonviolent demonstrators and their children, the Sunni rulers in the Gulf, the Turkish Prime Minister, Khameini defending his non-Sunni client no matter who he gasses, and the Russian president. Male honor has been a constant in human history for starting, perpetuating, and escalating wars, but male honor has never prevented or stopped a single war.

There are three lessons: 1. Male honor kills, and we need to work on a completely different form of male empowerment that should be taught to boys from a very young age as a part of our planetary struggle toward peace. 2. Leading women need to emerge forcefully and rescue this region because the leading older men are still too hardwired for honorable destruction. 3. There is a different kind of Middle Eastern man like Lakhdar Brahimi. Such men will be loathed by the 'manly men' who love to defend honor to the last blood drop of children. But men like Brahimi demonstrate dogged determination to stay in relationship until solutions are found, to value dialogue and not ridicule it, until the day that it produces results, to communicate, communicate, communicate until the eleventh hour, in order to save the children.

Such women and men are the ones who will rescue humanity from itself. The good news is that we have thousands of men and women like this, and we have many historical precedents. But we need as a global community to consciously and aggressively switch away from dysfunctional spirals of honor and killing, and toward positive spirals of communication, compromise, and even reconciliation. We can do this with greater intentionality. Last thought. Have you wondered why in this conflict with more millions of displaced starving people than anything in modern Middle Eastern history, that no one has aggressively pursued a ceasefire? Agreed upon surrenders, yes, everyone is up for those. But why have we not heard of ceasefires being aggressively pressed by the international community. Because there is not a single one of the male-dominated parties to the conflict who wants to surrender their honor long enough to consider the suffering of the civilians, of the children as their first priority. No, 'the key is we cannot let jihadis win', 'we cannot let Assad win', 'we cannot let Khameini win', 'we cannot let Putin do as he pleases'. It is all about honor of the few, as the killing of the many proceeds. It is time for honor to die, so that the people may live. Honor must die, so that the children may live.

Dr. Marc Gopin, James Laue Chair at George Mason University and Director of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy, and Conflict Resolution, sits on the Foreign Policy and Religion Working Group of the United States Department of State.