The image of the lifeless body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian emigrant washed up on a beach in Turkey, drives home the horrors of the Syrian civil war in a way that numbers alone cannot. Yet Aylan is only one tragedy of millions. Perhaps the moving story of the boy and his family will finally spur the world to end this ongoing calamity. The peace plans and foreign policy moves of the past four years have not worked. We need a new way of thinking and acting to stop the relentless death and destruction.
The Syrian civil war is a catastrophe. The conflict has killed over 240,000 people, maimed many more, and displaced half the country’s 22-million-strong population. If that is not bad enough, it has provided the anarchy in which the terrorist group ISIS has thrived. They’ve had carte blanche not only to kill, rape, and terrorize but also to destroy priceless historical sites like the Temple of Bel in Palmyra. Refugees pour over borders, overwhelming fragile Lebanon, disrupting Turkey, and sending boats full of desperate migrants across the Mediterranean. The war is not just a domestic Syrian problem; it affects dozens of countries, among them many of our allies. It affects the world.
Yet the world is paralyzed, and the U.S. seems unable to come up with a policy to stop the carnage. The habitual way of thinking is to figure out who are the good guys and how can we help them win. This mindset will only perpetuate the war. Yes, there are some secular, democratic groups among the rebels that we might consider friends, but they are overwhelmed by the dictatorial brutality of the Assad regime on one side and ISIS’ depravity on the other. How, policymakers wonder, could the good guys in Syria ever win without dragging us into another endless Middle East quagmire? And who do we most want to defeat, the regime or the terrorists? This is messy. It seems too hard to sort out the good guys from the bad. So we throw up our hands in despair.
The answer lies in giving up the goal of picking our dog in the fight. To quote scholar William Zartman, “the fight itself is the dog.” Yes, there are atrocities being committed regularly in Syria, and yes ultimately the perpetrators should be punished. But first the carnage has to stop.
Other countries too must switch from supporting their favorite dog to ending the fight. The latest comprehensive peace plan, the outcome of last year's Geneva II conference, centered on a transitional government—in other words, the end of the Assad regime and the beginning of something else. The problem is that Assad has powerful friends—Russia and Iran in particular. If we want to topple Assad we’re going to have to fight him and his allies. The war has dragged on because the world’s powerful countries have lined up on opposite sides of it, rendering the conflict essentially a proxy war: Russia and Iran on one side, the U.S., Europeans, and Gulf Arab states on the other. These outside powers provide weapons, money, and moral support that fuel and perpetuate the war. It’s the same dynamic that afflicted countries like Nicaragua, Angola, and countless others during the Cold War. Once the Cold War ended, those countries’ governments and rebels were able to negotiate peace.
One need not be a fan of the Assad regime—I hope he will be brought to justice one day for use of chemical weapons and barrel bombs, and I hope Syrians will have the chance soon to elect their own leaders. But the question of whether Assad stays in power now is beside the point. The priority must be to find a peace plan that all major players can get behind, even if our favorite dogs don’t win. If Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the Europeans agree with us that Assad should go, there will be a way to get him out. The exhausted Syrian government could not oppose such an overwhelming consensus for long. More likely, however, is a plan that allows Assad to stay for now with some democratic reforms and a peacekeeping force, and that paves the way for a heavily monitored election in a couple of years.
We need a consensus of the major powers on a peace plan for Syria rather than a victory for our favorite dog. Otherwise, there will be many more Aylans.
Ghais is a Ph.D. candidate and adjunct instructor at American University’s School of International Service focusing on peace processes.