The Syrian War has already taken more than 130,000 lives. It is destroying a country that lies at the very cradle of civilization. Some of the world's greatest cultural treasures, in ancient heritage cities like Aleppo, are being destroyed; irreplaceable archeological sites are being plundered. Yet this violence could be brought to a quick end with a more enlightened policy by the United States and its allies.
The U.S. demands that Bashar Al-Assad must go. Assad has certainly acted with brutality and committed atrocities, as have some of the rebel groups. Yet the U.S. government contributes to the trajectory of escalating violence by demanding that another head of state must leave or else. It is this demand, above all others, that prolongs the Syrian bloodshed by blocking a pragmatic end to the killing.
When the Arab Spring began in 2011, a popular movement in Syria demanded political reforms. The government responded instead with a bloody crackdown. In turn, some parts of the Syrian military broke off and began an insurrection.
At that point, in August 2011, Barrack Obama declared that, "the time has come for President Assad to step aside." This was a remarkable statement, one head of state telling another to leave. Presumably the president thought that Assad was about to fall. Big miscalculation.
In fact, the U.S. has no right to pick the leaders of other countries. Nonetheless, the U.S. has a long track record of overthrowing other leaders. These U.S.-backed coups and insurrections almost always end in disaster and prolonged chaos. Think of Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Congo (1961), Vietnam (1963), Afghanistan (2001), and Iraq (2003) and Libya (2011), to name a few.
As Obama demanded Assad's exit, U.S. allies in the region also began giving support, sanctuary and arms to the Syrian rebels. On April 1, 2012, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton reiterated that "Assad must go, the sooner the better," and led support for the insurgency through a new U.S.-led multinational group, "Friends of the Syrian People." The war escalated dramatically. The death rate soared.
The U.S. sought to topple Assad in part because the U.S. and its allies deemed him to be too friendly and beholden to Iran. By toppling Assad, the U.S. thought, Iran would be weakened. Yet Assad has another important ally: Russia. And Russia was not about to step back and let their ally be toppled by a U.S.-backed insurgency. Moreover, international law prohibits one group of nations supporting the overthrow of a sovereign government unless in self-defense or mandated by the UN Security Council.
The way to end the bloodletting is to staunch the flow of weapons into Syria from outside powers. Saudi Arabia and probably other neighbors have been providing weapons to the insurgents, and the U.S. has been providing at least financial, logistical and political support to the insurrection, if not arms. On the other side, Iran and Russia are arming the Assad regime. It would not take much for all major outside parties -- the U.S., Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia -- to tamp down the war rapidly and dramatically. By ending the arms inflows, the violence would drop dramatically.
So why doesn't it happen? Because from the U.S. perspective it would mean that Assad would stay. There are those who would say that Iran and Russia would not abide by such an arms limitation. They are likely mistaken.
No country has an interest in Syria falling to pieces. No country has an interest in the spread of Al-Qaeda-backed terrorism, as is now occurring in the midst of the growing violence. Just as the U.S., Russia and the Syrian government were able to agree on removing the chemical weapons, it would very likely be possible to tamp down the violence decisively as long as regime change by the U.S. and its allies is off the table.
Even with Assad remaining in power at this stage, political change in Syria would likely continue. Political change occurs from inside as well as from the outside. Myanmar, for example, has opened a political reform process not through an insurrection but through internal negotiations judged to be in the interest of the major actors including the military. Similarly, Poland in 1989 made its transition to democracy with a government that included leaders from the Communist old guard as well as the Solidarity-backed new leadership.
Internal political change is possible. It is, indeed, far more likely to succeed than the violent overthrow of governments engineered from abroad. And in the process, Syria would be spared the ongoing bloodbath.