Posted on June 03, 2013 in Washington Watch

In "Looking at Iran", a report on Iran's precipitous decline in Arab public opinion, our polling establishes several trends in attitudes unfolding across the Middle East. The most worrisome is the deepening sectarian divide that threatens to unravel several states, posing a long-term challenge to the region's stability.  Several Arab states are already in turmoil, victims of this phenomenon. Sectarian tension in Lebanon is an old story, as it is in Bahrain. Iraq has once again exploded in sect violence. And the situation in Kuwait has become a concern.

Our polling shows that most Arabs blame Iran for fomenting this division, and point to the war that is destroying Syria as the major driver behind these sectarian tensions. Iran, one might say, has worked hard to earn this reputation. From the earliest days of the Islamic Republic, they agitated, they provoked, and they meddled. When challenged, they fell back on their time-tested claims to be the "leader of the resistance against the West" and a source of popular revolution.

For a while, it worked. But in brutally crushing their domestic opposition "Green Movement" and in so overtly playing the sect card in Iraq, Bahrain, and now Syria, they have, our polling shows, defined their regional role as a sectarian power that is hell bent on defending, not the people's will, but their own self-interest.

While this is true, instead of working to defuse tensions and to eliminate the sources of sectarianism, too many regional players have stepped in pouring gasoline on raging fires - with Syria being the best example.

What began as a popular revolt against a brutal and ossified dictatorship, Syria has now degenerated into a bloody battlefield pitting sects and their regional allies against each other in a "dance unto death". On the one side, is the Ba'ath regime, supported by Russia, Iran, Hizbullah, and elements in the Iraqi government. Arrayed against them are a host of Syrians (some of whom have defected from the armed forces and others who have formed militias receiving arms and support from a number of Arab states and Turkey) and a cast of thousands of foreign Sunni fighters (some of whom have affiliated with al Qaeda) who have entered Syria to wage war on behalf of their brethren.

Listening to the rhetorical excesses coming from all sides can be quite disturbing. Using apocalyptic references, they warn of the calamities that will follow should their side lose, while promising that with victory all will be well.

This deadly zero-sum game is both dangerous and fatally flawed, because in reality this is a war that no one can win, and the consequences of continuing it will only make the situation worse.

For months now, in battle after battle, both the regime and its opposition predicted victory. At one point, Aleppo was soon to fall. Then Damascus was threatened. Now it's the regime and its allies' turn to promise a "decisive" victory in al Qusayr. But it is all illusion. There will be no decisive victory. There is only a stalemate bringing more death and more destruction. And in the end, there is the unraveling of Syria and the entire region which will, if this continues, only descend further into a sectarian hell.

A month or so ago, a front page photo in the New York Times caught my attention. It was a picture of a bombed out street scene in Aleppo. The destruction was horrific. In the foreground of the photo a young man, with a semi-automatic weapon in his lap, sitting in a chair that, from the looks of it, had been salvaged from someone's living room. The caption read "Syria's Rebels Make Gains in Aleppo". The question that occurred to me was "if this picture describes a 'gain', what will victory look like?"

What consumes me in all of this are the innocents who have died at the hands of the regime's wanton violence, and those who have died in the continuing futility of this proxy war. Equally troubling are the millions who are languishing in refugee camps, and those who have been internally displaced - their suffering and their loss is of nightmarish proportions. And I also lament the destruction of the country of Syria and the imminent danger a collapsed Syrian state poses to Lebanon and Jordan and beyond.

Because so many have died and so many others have lost everything but their lives, and because so many Syrians, especially its vulnerable Christian minority are living in fear, this madness must end. All sides and their sponsors must be made to realize that in continuing this conflict no one will win, and everyone will lose.

As the events of the last week have made clear, we're not there yet. The opposition coalition and its fighting forces remain hopelessly divided with a fractured leadership and competing agendas. And the regime, as tone-deaf as ever, still believes it will weather this storm. Their sponsors and supporters, East and West, appear determined to continue to fuel the conflict, in the belief that they can secure some advantage.

My father-in-law, who possessed a delightfully sardonic wit had an expression he would use in a situation like this. One day, while driving on the highway, he realized he was lost. But the road ahead appeared to be clear of traffic (a rarity to be enjoyed by a New Yorker), and so he joked, "we don't know where we're going, but we're making good time".

When I hear Senator John McCain calling for more arms, air strikes, no-fly zones and the like; when I hear the dangerous pronouncements coming from apologists for the various sides, I want to ask "do you know where are you going, and where is this taking Syria, its people and the region?"

That is why it is imperative that negotiations take place bringing all the combatants and their supporters together to seek an end to this conflict. Talks will not be pretty. But those who fear that Iran will emerge victorious should a negotiated solution be found, are mistaken. That ship has sailed - Iran has exhausted its regional standing. And those who fear that an extremist failed state will inevitably be the result of any compromise are also mistaken. In fact the best guarantee that both nightmare scenarios do not occur is that a negotiated solution be found that is endorsed and backed up by the international community.

It should be clear that at this point no resolution will be perfect.  But even an imperfect peace will end the blood-letting, putting Syria on the long and difficult road to  reconstruction and reconciliation. Peace will spare millions of lives and may save the region from the scourge of an unending sectarian conflict. That is why the Kerry-Lavrov proposal should be embraced. It remains the last best hope for Syria and the Middle East.  


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