Managing Syria’s Meltdown

DENVER – As Russian and American diplomats prepare for a Syrian peace conference, the Middle East is experiencing convulsions not seen since the Arab Spring two years ago. Syria, which at first seemed to be just another instance of internal change, has spawned a civil war that has spread beyond the country’s borders, affecting all of its neighbors. In historical terms, the Syrian crisis, not the Arab Spring, will most likely be regarded as the Middle East’s seminal event in this decade – and the crucible of the region’s future.

The dimensions of the crisis demand focus, wisdom, and leadership from all parties, especially the United States. Managing the historical forces that are being released requires going far beyond the desultory US debate about what kind of assistance to give to which participants in the conflict.

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Gone is the simplistic view of a conflict pitting aspiring democrats against a grouchy dictator – the familiar (though not entirely accurate) narrative of the Arab Spring. Would-be democrats, freedom fighters, jihadists, Sunni extremists, and Al Qaeda elements – all supported by Sunni Arab countries and groups, now man one side of the battle lines. Against them are arrayed President Bashar al-Assad and his cronies, Shia militant groups fighting to protect their lifelines to Iran, religious minorities concerned about life after Assad, and, most ominously, Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah.

With the stakes so high, the Russian-US initiative to organize a peace conference has not only been welcomed, but is seen as an indispensable initiative that must be planned with excruciating care. We are likely to hear of delay after delay in the coming days, as various sides try to choose their representatives. But patience is essential, because, once the conference begins, it must end in success. There will be no medals for effort.

The public debate in America about whether and how to arm or equip the Syrian opposition is an interesting sideshow. But it has nothing to do with the significance and complexity of the tectonic historical forces now grinding their way forward, straining – and beginning to tear asunder – the region’s political landscape.

Similarly, America’s great suspicion concerning Iran’s role in this regional crisis should not be used to try to limit its participation at the conference. Iran may be part of the problem, but, whether we like it or not, it may also be part of the solution. Indeed, out of crisis can come opportunity: an Iranian role in resolving the Syrian conflict could bring a measure of cooperation that ultimately leads to progress in the moribund talks on Iran’s nuclear program.

To solve a problem, make it bigger, as Dwight D. Eisenhower once put it. But we also need to understand that Iran’s nuclear aspirations do not exist in a vacuum. They are part and parcel of a broader agenda, some elements of which are visible in the ongoing Syrian crisis.

The crisis has indeed spread to all of Syria’s neighbors – including, most recently, Turkey, which has witnessed the export of suicide bombings to what had been the peaceful city of Reyhanli. US President Barack Obama was wise to have invited Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a NATO ally, to Washington for talks on Syria and the impending peace conference. Perhaps no country outside of Syria has shown greater concern about the crisis.

But it is Iraq (another country about which the US needs to show the utmost concern) that now faces the gravest spillover effects. Some pretend that the rise in violence there – to levels not seen since 2008 – has nothing to do with Syria. They lay all the blame for Iraq’s problems at the door of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a tough-minded Shia politician who has led the venerable Dawa Party to the head of a broad Shia coalition that helped him win a second term in December 2010.

The Shia are the majority in Iraq, and the Sunnis need to become reconciled with that fact. There is certainly good reason to be concerned about Maliki’s temperament, his small group of advisers, his tendency to exercise personal control in the use of state power, and his reputation, partly merited, of making empty promises.

But Sunni extremists have launched some 50 suicide attacks in the last month, killing 500 mostly Shia civilians. In one instance, they killed 30 people and seized the Justice Ministry in downtown Baghdad, and have attacked Kurdish interests in Kirkuk and Mosul for good measure.

In other words, this is hardly a moment when any leader anywhere would be in a position to offer more concessions to the opposition. Today, Sunnis in Iraq’s Anbar province, inspired by their brethren in neighboring Syria, are organizing “tribal armies” to do battle with the Iraq national army – a challenge to central authority that no leader could ignore.

The fate of the entire region may well depend on the outcome of the upcoming conference. For the US, in particular, this is a moment when many interests are simultaneously engaged. One hopes that it, too, will be properly prepared.