The news from Syria is not good.
Fighting between forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and rebel groups has now taken at least 40,000 lives, and there are half a million refugees. Both sides have committed shocking atrocities. Combat has spread to the major city of Aleppo and to the capital, Damascus. The rebels have taken over the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus, in response to which the Syrian military bombarded the camp while most of its residents fled.
Some have stated that the Assad regime is on the ropes, but others question this. All, however, are agreed that the bloodshed will continue, for even if Assad falls, conflicts are liable to arise among disparate rebel forces, especially between political Islamist or jihadi groups and more secular groups.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has announced U.S. support for the Syrian National Council as the "only" legitimate representative of the Syrian people. This group, mentored by the U.S-French-organized "Friends of Syria," has been recognized by more than 90 governments, including especially the government of Prime Minister Recep Erdogan of Turkey, which shares a long border with Syria. The council and its armed affiliates are the recipients of largesse from the NATO countries and from the right-wing monarchies of the Arabian Gulf.
However the claim that the Syrian National Coalition is representative of the Syrian people has not been endorsed yet by the Syrian people. The Assad regime continues to have at least grudging support from many Syrians, especially those who fear a Sunni Islamist takeover of the country with all that this implies. And the Islamist forces themselves are not likely to want to share power with groups, including exiles, that may oppose their program.
One Islamist group, the extremist al-Nusra front, is emerging as one of the the most powerful forces within the internal rebel coalition. Some see al-Nusra as closely allied with al-Qaeda, and it is a major conduit for foreign jihadis wanting to join the Syria fight. If they end up running Syria, there is little doubt that this will be a great shot in the arm for al-Qaeda affiliated and influenced groups worldwide.
Therefore it is not surprising that Secretary of State Clinton has added the al-Nusra front to the U.S. list of terrorist organizations. But the "terrorist" listing has annoyed some leading figures among the rebels, who consider al-Nusra an important and legitimate part of the struggle against Assad.
The situation continues to escalate. Last week, the United States accused Assad of preparing to weaponize deadly chemicals to use against the rebels. Later, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta backed away from this a bit, but not before announcing that the U.S. will send Patriot missiles and some U.S. troops to help Turkish forces deployed along the Turkish-Syrian border. This has prompted fear that NATO is about to declare a no-fly zone in the area, which was a key step toward full-fledged intervention in Libya last year.
A few voices are still being raised in favor of seeking a negotiated solution to the crisis. Early this week, Syrian Vice President Farouk Al Sharaa publicly expressed the view that neither side can win and that a peaceful end to the fighting should be sought. Iran has now also stepped forward with a plan for a negotiated settlement involving new elections with the possibility that Assad leaves office. However, as long as the Gulf Arab monarchies and NATO continue to supply the rebels with funding, they will not see these initiatives as attractive.
A number of questions now face the U.S. government and people:
* Is there still a chance to get a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis, or do people like the al-Nusra Front now have the upper hand to such a degree that all chance of this has vanished? If there is such a chance, would it not be better for the U.S. to support it?
* If Assad falls, will there be an immediate civil war among rebel factions? If so, what are the chances that the likes of al-Nusra will end up in full control? And if those chemical weapons really exist (and are not imaginary "weapons of mass destruction" like the ones that served as the pretext for invading Iraq), who will control them?
* If al-Nusra and allies take over Syria, what fate will befall Syrian Christians, Jews, Alawites, Druses, and secularists, including Syrian communists and other leftists? What kind of humanitarian and refugee disaster awaits?
* What impact will this have on the rest of the Middle East, North Africa and the Muslim world? Will destabilization of neighboring countries, as has happened as the result of the Libya war, now be greatly increased?
* Most of all, what lessons will be learned from the Syrian situation that were not learned from Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq?
Photo: Syria Freedom // CC 2.0