According to the Syrian novelist Dima Wannous, the seed of Syria’s Arab Spring revolt was planted in Damascus in February 2011. A policeman insulted a shop owner, and a crowd of young workers and traders formed chanting, “The Syrian people cannot be humiliated.” The interior minister arrived to scold the crowd: “Shame on you. This is a demonstration!” He had no idea, says Wannous, that “demonstration would become revolution.” As a result, Syria, once ruled by a clique, is faced with a demand for a free society.
In the 21 months of conflict, Syria has not followed the pattern of the Arab Spring, replacing a dictator with incipient structures of democracy. President Bashar al-Assad has repeated the policy of his father, Hafez al-Assad, who in 1982 crushed a Sunni insurgency by destroying the city of Hama.
The statistics shock. An estimated 40,000 people have died. At least 2.5 million Syrians are displaced and a half million have fled into neighboring countries. The shelling of cities has rendered 1.5 million homeless. The government imagines this will make the people submit.
Proposed solutions extend from greater use of force—arm the opposition, assist it with air support or create no-fly zones—to more intensive diplomacy. The justification for outside intervention has several sources: the United Nations itself; Catholic just war theory shared by secular governments; the emerging principle of the responsibility to protect.
The opposition has been divided. The Syrian National Council, which includes the Muslim Brotherhood, is headquartered in Istanbul. Disparate rebel groups receive help from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Salafis, extreme Sunni Muslims, belong to several rebel groups. Western powers, especially the United States, remain hesitant to better equip the resistance, aware that advanced weapons might ultimately fall into the hands of extremists. The Italian Catholic Community of Sant’Egidio, which has a history of peacemaking, met in July in Rome with opposition Islamists, leftists, secular democrats and Kurds. They have called upon the Free Syrian Army to rethink its strategy and return to the pursuit of a political solution to the conflict.
A military intervention, even one embraced multilaterally, seems hard to rationalize according to just war principles: noncombatants will surely be endangered; even greater disorder threatens; and a successful outcome is hard to perceive. Though the death toll now seems horrific, President Assad has promised to deploy chemical weapons should an international coalition appear to join sides with the Free Syrian Army.
This does not mean, however, that the international community can reside on the sidelines of the horror. Not intervening similarly offers a litany of potential noxious outcomes. Under the doctrine of responsibililty to protect, in fact, the international community has a moral obligation to respond when sovereign entities exhibit such a complete disregard for the lives and well-being of their own people. How then to proceed?
In a statement in July, the Syrians who convened with Sant’Egidio in Rome declared: “We cannot accept Syria being transformed into a theatre of regional and international conflict. We believe the international community has the strength and the necessary ability to find a consensus that would be the basis of a political solution... a real global negotiation that excludes no one and a process that would be completed with real national reconciliation based on justice.” These are nonviolent words worth hearing as the Syrian civil war hangs in bloody irresolution, seemingly on the verge, as winter approaches, of spiraling into something even worse.
In the gloom of this war, even with the option of direct military intervention properly off the table, there remain opportunities for active interventions by the United States and other global powers, particularly Syria’s patron, Russia, that can even at this late moment snatch a diplomatic victory from the jaws of this ongoing defeat for humanity. With the right pressure, creative proposals and determined, persistent diplomacy, President Assad may still be made to see reason and assent to a cease-fire that can reboot a process toward a political settlement that could establish the foundation of a long-term regional peace.
All options should remain open, including allowing Assad to remain, albeit in an altered capacity, and even proposals that consider redrawing the colonial boundaries of Syria to better represent the Alawite and Sunni, Christian and Kurd populations. The peacemakers must use every means to convince President Assad and the members of the international community, who are now ready to throw up their hands in frustration, that the whole world loses if Syria dies.