LONDON – The proposal by the United States and Russia to hold a diplomatic conference to end the carnage in Syria deserves a less skeptical reaction than it has received. While it will be difficult to get all of the relevant parties to the table in Geneva any time soon, much less to ensure an outcome that will stick, diplomacy is the only game left. As much as one might wish otherwise, every other policy option canvassed so far is wrong in principle, nonviable in practice, unlikely to be effective, or bound to increase rather than diminish suffering.
After two years of civil war, with no decisive military victory by either side in sight, the situation could not be more desperate. According to current United Nations estimates, more than 80,000 Syrians are dead, and 6.8 million – one-third of the country’s population – need urgent humanitarian assistance. Some 4.25 million are displaced internally, and more than 1.5 million have fled the country, sheltering as refugees mainly in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey.
The strain on Syria’s neighbors is immense, and the conflict is inexorably seeping into the wider region. Both government and rebel forces have committed atrocity crimes. Many more are feared as violence among the main sectarian groups escalates.
Continued international paralysis is indefensible. Inaction would ignite fires throughout the Middle East, and would violate the international community’s now-accepted responsibility to protect, through timely and decisive collective action, populations at risk of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other major crimes against humanity and war crimes.