For the Syrian crisis to end without enormous additional loss of life, two things need to happen.
First, Western powers should cease threatening military intervention.
Second, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should step down, and Moscow should point him toward the exit.
The violence continues in Syria, despite the presence of international observers and the repeated promises of the government to abide by the U.N. peace treaty. This has led some hawks to argue for a Western military response, with Washington, Riyadh and Paris warning Assad of the possibility of military intervention.
The use of force is a deceptively attractive alternative to the application of soft power. If fully armed and trained, the Syrian opposition forces could ultimately dislodge the Assad dynasty. But when the dust of hostilities settles, the country would likely be in ruins: carnage, devastation and divided leadership, with no clear plans for democracy building.
Past examples of external military intervention in the region are discouraging. While the Iraq War did topple Saddam Hussein, it came at a high cost of national disunity and deplorable waste of human and material resources. And the NATO intervention in Libya was bloody and destructive.
Even the softer strategy of arming rebels from the outside is flawed. There are no cases in the region of armed resistance leading to liberation. In Algeria, Lebanon and Yemen, armed resistance against unjust regimes did not bring freedom and equality: the more killing that occurs today, the less national reconciliation tomorrow.
What’s more, the Syrian regime is not likely to last more than a year given the deterioration of the economy, continued defection of the military and sustained international pressure. The opposition should have patience, confidence and vision to bring the different segments of society together after the ruler steps down.
The critical question is how to eliminate the ruler without hurting the democracy-building process.
Russia is a crucial partner for Syria. Moscow should realize that a change in leadership at the top is necessary for peace. That’s why it was so disheartening to see Assad interviewed so cozily on Russian television on May 16, with him saying that the Syrian people support his government and blaming the protests on “terrorists.”
In order for diplomacy to work, Moscow must apply strong pressure for leadership transition in Damascus, and the West must reduce its threats of direct or indirect military intervention. Otherwise, this bloody civil war will drag on and on.
• Rubeiz, a social scientist and political commentator, is the former secretary of the Middle East for the Geneva-based World Council of Churches.