Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

When to Talk to Monsters

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

When to Talk to Monsters

Article excerpt

Assad is a butcher, but a diplomatic deal is the best hope for this war-torn and fractious nation.

The United States and Russia will soon hold a peace conference aimed at ending the Syrian civil war, which has killed more than 70,000 people, displaced millions of others and threatened the stability of the region.

The Obama administration's decision to engage Russia in diplomatic talks is a good but belated one. Russia, a key backer of the Syrian government, cannot by itself end the war, any more than the United States can. But together with countries like Britain, there is a chance, however slim, of a diplomatic breakthrough. The real shortcoming of the administration's policy on Syria has not been an unwillingness to engage militarily -- as critics of President Obama have suggested -- but the ill-advised decision, in August 2011, to preclude the possibility of a diplomatic resolution involving all sides.

Back then, when the United States cut off ties with Bashar al- Assad's government and declared as a policy that he had to go, dictators in Tunisia and Egypt had just been toppled and Libya's leader, Muammar el-Qaddafi, was on the ropes, thanks largely to a NATO no-fly zone that protected rebels. But Syria was always a more complex situation.

By repudiating Assad without any nuance, the administration complicated its ability to negotiate with minority Kurds, Christians and Druse, who are suspicious of Assad but even more fearful about the uncertainty that would accompany a takeover by Sunni-led rebels - - many of whom espouse a strict interpretation of Islam, and some of whom have openly affiliated with Al Qaeda. Their participation is essential to any future Syria.

America's black-and-white stance on Assad has boxed us in and left us with the unenviable task of refereeing among opposition groups whose capacity for disagreement seems unlimited.

None of this in any way exonerates Assad, who should face prosecution for war crimes. But the armchair hawks who are boldly calling for bombing the parts of Syria controlled by Assad, or directly arming the rebels, ought to pause and reflect on who would rule Syria if he were toppled tomorrow.

Syrians fighting on both sides of the divide are certainly thinking about it. They desperately need clarity about how their country might be organized in a post-Assad era.

Will it be a federal state with regional autonomy and enclaves for Christian, Kurdish and Druse minorities? Will it be a unitary state controlled, as it has been for decades, by a heavy hand in Damascus, with Assad's authoritarian Alawite regime replaced by a sectarian Sunni central government that tries to impose Islamic law? Or a failed state, carved up into sectarian and ethnic zones, and a haven for terrorists?

Syria is not only divided between a dictatorship and an opposition; there are many fault lines. …

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