Hope for Peace in Syria, But Don’t Expect It

The statistics surrounding the slaughter in Syria sound surreal. In the 27 months since the uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s government erupted in March 2011, 100,000 people have been killed, the overwhelming majority by Assad’s army and paramilitary goons. If you’re into grisly math, that works out to an average of 122 war-related deaths each day. As always, numbers like these gloss over the many people who have been so grievously wounded, physically or psychologically, that they will never again live productive lives. What the latter figure amounts to in Syria is anyone’s guess. What’s certain is that it’s even larger than the death toll.

The numbers pertaining to those killed and wounded in wars have a disembodied quality; the human element is drained out of them. So one needs to look deeper.

Thousands of Syrian families have been shattered by a conflict that has consumed fathers, mothers, and children. Quite apart from the grief, the economic effect is devastating when the primary income earner, typically a male, has perished, especially for those tradition-bound families in which women do not work outside their homes.

With so many Syrians killed and abducted and tortured; so much sectarian hatred aroused as a result; and so large a fraction of the basic infrastructure (transportation and water treatment and supply systems, housing, schools, hospitals) damaged or destroyed, Syria’s recovery will takes decades. It is estimated that rebuilding Syria’s infrastructure alone will cost $11 billion.

The road to recovery will be long even under the best of circumstances: a ceasefire that occurs within the next few months and that lasts; a stable, legitimate, and efficient post-war polity; and abundant long-term economic aid from other countries.

Given the history of civil wars, it would be foolish to expect such propitious post-conflict conditions.

Then there is the piteous plight of Syria’s refugees (now approaching 1.7 million) who are living on the margins of life in neighboring countries and of the so-called “internally displaced persons” (over 4 million). Together, they constitute 27 percent of Syria’s population. To put that proportion in perspective, it’s to equivalent 84 million Americans.

Imagine what it will take to return so many traumatized people to their homes (many of which have been turned into rubble), to find jobs for them, and to reintegrate them into what has become and will long remain a fractured society.

These details are dismal enough. What makes Syria’s predicament worse is that the number of dead, wounded, and dispossessed is going to increase.

That’s because hopes (slim to begin with) for the peace conference being planned by the United States and Russia (the target date is July) are fast receding. There are many reasons for the pessimism, but one, oddly enough, is that none of the warring parties yet has an interest in ending the carnage.

Since at least early June, Assad’s government has made important battlefield gains. Its success in securing Qusayr, a gateway to the Alawite-majority coastal bastion Assad hopes to establish as part of his Plan B, is testimony to this.

With access to Iranian arms and advisers, the shock troops of the Lebanese Shiite militia, Hezbollah, and Russian weapons and political backing, Assad believes the wind is now at his back. If he sends representatives to a peace conference it will be on his terms; and they won’t include an item the that United States and the Syrian resistance insist upon, namely, a transitional government in which he plays no part.

Yes, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, and Turkey are (in different ways) providing, or helping deliver, arms and supplies to the insurgents. But this assistance, which includes training, hasn’t been sufficient to change the balance of power on the battlefield — and won’t anytime soon.

You might think that the insurgents, who are outgunned and on the defensive, would be willing to compromise. You’d be wrong.

The “Friends of Syria,” the group (which includes the United States) backing Assad’s adversaries, recently agreed this week to increase the assistance it gives them. Earlier, President Obama decided that America would start sending ammunition and small arms. The latter development in particular has lifted the spirits of the anti-Assad forces. Perhaps they believe that the president, having taken the first big step toward direct involvement, will eventually be forced to take additional ones rather than be blamed should Assad prevail. They may be right.

Yes, President Obama is leery of getting sucked into another quagmire. But he said a year ago that any use of chemical weapons by Assad would be “red line.” Having declared recently that Assad has done just that, Obama had little choice but to arm the Syrian opposition. If American small arms and ammunition prove insufficient to change its fortunes, Obama may face a choice between retreat and deeper engagement.

That’s precisely what Assad’s foes may be banking on, which means that they won’t be enthusiastic about peace talks until they’ve regained lost ground and can come to the bargaining table with a stronger hand. Obama himself has said that American arms are meant to strengthen their political position.

Then there’s Iran, Assad’s lifeline. There can be no lasting settlement in Syria unless Iran is involved in some fashion. But the United States and the Syrian opposition steadfastly reject Tehran’s participation.

Here’s the problem with that position: If you were “Supreme Leader” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, would you, having committed prestige and resources to save a crucial ally, watch through the windows as Syria’s future is charted in a conference room somewhere? Would you enable peace talks (by exerting pressure on Assad, for example), when the side you are supporting retains the advantage?

No matter the Obama administration’s jaundiced view of Iran, it’s hard to see progress toward peace in Syria unless a way is found to bring Iran into the tent, even as an indirect participant with which the United States doesn’t negotiate, except perhaps through intermediaries. Diplomacy often involves dealing with folks you don’t like and getting a deal that’s not as good as the one you would have liked.

The news emanating from Syria continues to be bleak. Alas, there’s little basis for expecting that it will get better anytime soon.

Rajan Menon is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of Political Science at the City College of New York/City University of New York, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the author, most recently, of The End of Alliances.

Image: Photo: Beshr O/Flickr/CC License