This is a bad time to be a Syrian. Will the two sides tearing your country apart meet in Geneva to end the war? Is either side deploying chemical weapons? Is anyone willing to give up the baby before Solomon’s sword falls?
What are your options? You can join the revolt, which may involve you in the crimes of murder, kidnapping, pillage and rape. It will mean killing other Syrians, in and out of army uniform. If the army captures you, you are as good as dead. You can join the army, but you’ll bomb and ravage cities and villages. Those you take prisoner will be tortured or killed by the security services. If the rebels capture you, you are as good as dead.
You could flee to Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey to join the 1.4 million other Syrians registered, and another 200,000 waiting to register, with the United Nations high commissioner for refugees. You will languish in a refugee camp. Your family will not have enough to eat, and you will not be able to work. Your daughters may be sold into prostitution, as many have in Jordan. The rebels may recruit your sons to fight under a jihadist or tribal banner inside Syria, where they may kill or be killed.
The other option, which the majority of Syrians have so far taken, is to stay home and hope to avoid the war. Sooner or later, though, a rocket may kill your family. A car bomb can explode beside you on your way to work. Soldiers or rebels may overrun your neighbourhood and occupy your house. Criminals pretending to be freedom fighters may kidnap you and demand money from your family. If they cannot afford to pay or take too long to find the money, you are dead.
Syria is being invaded. Lebanese Shia from Hezbollah are fighting for the regime. Foreign jihadists are waging a holy war against those it calls apostates. Everyone wants to dictate Syria’s future. Russia arms one side, while America’s Arab client states send weapons to the other.
The horror has intensified since fighting began in March 2011. Those who predicted the imminent overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad were as mistaken as those who said the rebels were too few to sustain a long struggle. “Remember all this talk that we’ve heard for a year or two, ‘It’s inevitable that Bashar al-Assad will fall’?” asked Senator John McCain on CBS News last Sunday. McCain could have added that the talk emanated from the US, which has misjudged Syria in the past.
Who, in McCain’s words, predicted Assad’s fall? Secretary of state Hillary Clinton repeatedly forecast and demanded his overthrow, making it a precondition for negotiations. Clinton’s policy failed. Assad’s forces were doing better than the rebels. Her successor, John Kerry, changed tack and went to the Russians – who are supplying Assad with his best munitions – to propose that each side bring its clients to the table. That the US could have done that before more than 80,000 Syrians died is obvious. A conference in Geneva is nonetheless a chance, however slim, of peace, given that neither side has the strength to vanquish the other.
On 7 May the US and Russia called for a conference in Geneva. Russia delivered Assad, who told al-Manar TV on 30 May: “We will formally go to the (Geneva) conference as legitimate representatives of our people.” Until then, he had rejected dialogue with “terrorists”. The US has not brought the opposition to the table, despite a week of haggling in Istanbul that one diplomat described, off the record, as a “circus”.
George Sabra, the Syrian National Coalition’s interim president, said in Istanbul on 30 May: “Diplomatic solutions are a farce, meaningless. The Syrian National Coalition will not take part in any conference until the regime stops killing Syrians.” If the SNC, itself a creation of American diplomacy, does not attend, there can be no conference. No conference, no peace.
Lebanon suffered 15 years of civil war until all-party discussions in Taif, Saudi Arabia, largely brokered by Syria, forced the country’s sectarian leaders to sign a document that none of them liked. The war, though, ended. A similar accord in Geneva would probably be imperfect, but it would allow Syrians space to govern themselves without foreigners pushing them towards an unattainable all-out victory. It would also deprive the rival theocrats in Iran and Saudi Arabia of the opportunity of fighting their war to the last Syrian.
Europe raised the stakes on 27 May by dropping its embargo on arms deliveries to the rebels, prompting Russia to surpass the EU with the S-300 air defences that would make a no-fly zone over Syria more problematic than it is already. Syria does not need more weaponry. It needs peace. That means dragging both sides to the table without preconditions.
Some rebels are using the regime’s alleged deployment of the nerve gas sarin as another reason to avoid negotiations and prolong the war. Yet the possible escalation to chemicals, which do devastating and long-term harm to all Syrians, is a reason to talk, not to fight. More war will bring more weapons and more fighters from all over the world, making it worse than ever to be a Syrian.
Charles Glass is the author of Tribes with Flags, a travel narrative on Greater Syria, which is being reissued by Harper Collins. He was ABC News chief Middle East correspondent from 1983 to 1993.