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.
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.