For the past 2 years, Syria has spiraled from what began as a peaceful call for freedom by Syrian citizens into a bloody conflict fanned by foreign fighters who have joined both sides in this war. Over 90,000 Syrians have been killed and 1,500,000 more been forced to flee the country and are living as refugees in neighboring countries.
This is a complex conflict. The Assad government, a heavily armed and brutal dictatorship, has repressed the majority of its people and promoted the dominance of Syrian society by a religious minority. The rebels, a heavily armed conglomeration, includes the al-Nusra Front, an ally of al-Qaeda that is pursuing a fundamentalist takeover of Syria, and the Free Syrian Army, which is a catch-all term for numerous factions, including other fundamentalists, that is dominated by ongoing internal struggles for control and has been unable to forge a cohesive strategy. Both Assad and the rebels have the support of a significant part of the citizenry. Both sides have brutally killed unarmed citizens. Both sides have committed war crimes. Both sides are supported by outside forces with their own agendas: Saudi Arabia and Iran are each using Syria to further their own ambitions to dominate the region as well as using it as a battleground for the age-old sectarian conflict between Shia and Sunni Muslims; the United States, Russia, and China are using Syria as another way station in their battle for global dominance. The reality is that Syria is now a non-functioning society that is overrun with weapons and disorder.
Where to stand in this crisis? We should neither defend the brutality of the Assad regime or its right to exist, nor should we defend or support the rebels, who would also deny human rights and rule using violence and religious coercion. There are no good solutions that we, or anyone else, can impose from the outside. Syrians should decide Syrian destiny. Remaking a society in our vision, as we have tried to do in Iraq and Afghanistan, is a disaster for the people of those countries. What we can do is stay focused on the very people who are most threatened in this nightmare—the civilians—and reach out to them with humanitarian aid. We can and should stand in solidarity with those in Syria, who are currently marginalized within the opposition, and share a peaceful, democratic vision for their country. Care and concern for Syrian civilians should guide U.S. policy. Military action will only exacerbate the crisis. No arms to Syria.