The civil war in Syria has now killed a quarter of a million people, and driven 4 million people to foreign countries where they wait hopelessly in the limbo of refugee camps. Half the people who remain in Syria are homeless. Out of a population once estimated at 18 million, about three-quarters have lost everything.
This self-destructive war began in 2011 in the Arab Spring, imitating popular demonstrations elsewhere in the region that temporarily brought down authoritarian governments. But these were tipping-point revolutions, winning by contagious mass enthusiasm that brought a segment of the regime's forces over to the revolutionary side. Tipping points work best when the action is concentrated in a capital city. But where struggles are dispersed, the regime fights back and battles take place across the country, the moment when a few army leaders can settle things by switching sides has passed. Concentration favors short and relatively bloodless transitions; dispersion creates lengthy civil wars.
Syria had two big metropolitan areas, each about 2.5 million. While fighting developed in Damascus in the south, Aleppo in the north initially tried to stay out of it. But neutrals soon become victims as conflict escalates. Rebels turned from peaceful demonstrations to guerrilla tactics. Since guerrillas depend on hiding in the civilian population, they made places like Aleppo into battlegrounds. Civilians were hit both by guerrillas weapons and by the regime's counter-attacks. The cycle of atrocities had begun, each side motivated by hatred and revenge for what the other side did to them. In the atmosphere of polarization, neutrals are condemned as no better than enemies. This helps explain the callous disregard for the millions whose livelihood is destroyed in somebody else's fight.
What can the rest of the world do? The spontaneous sentiment in a world of mass communications is to support the good guys and help defeat the bad guys. The problem is that in this kind of war the good guys turn into bad guys too. Guerrilla war is intrinsically messy, and anti-guerrilla war carried out by air power tends to destroy everything on the battlefield, no matter who happens to live there.
Outside intervention makes things worse. A civil war that would wind down by running out of resources is kept going artificially, when outside regimes send in weapons and fighters to their favorite factions. Ideological wars are particularly vicious, since an ideology recruits the most dedicated believers. Today this is most obviously militant Islam, but the same destructiveness has been seen for ideological volunteers fighting for fascism, communism or democracy, as in the Spanish civil war of the 1930s.
And multi-sided conflicts are most difficult to settle. A two-sided war has a clear termination point. But three, four, five or more factions, especially when they have independent bases and external allies, make an intrinsically unstable situation, where the weakening of some factions opens up opportunities for others to form. This is chaos in the technical sense of the term; the system does not stabilize if one faction is destroyed, it just gives rise to further conflicts.
In such a configuration, the rise of something like ISIS was predictable. Its potential destruction will not end the instability. Syria was not simply democratizers vs. Assad's regime; but Sunnis, Shi'ites and sub-factions (Alawites, Druze), and Christians; Arabs and Kurds; plus tribal alliances. Superimposed on this are the outside interventions, some motivated by religious sympathies, others by geopolitical aggrandizement. High-minded outsiders like the US are not exempt; whether our motive is fostering democracy, countering terrorism, or just acting like a Great Power, we add one more source of fuel for the fire.
Is there any realistic solution? Hobbes proposed, apropos of the English civil war of the 1640s, that any strong regime is preferable to endless fighting of everyone-against-everyone-else. It is hardest to see this at the outset, when everyone is enthusiastic for their cause and sure they will win. But once a conflict has been going on long enough, many people realize that the fighting is worse than whatever we were fighting about. This is certainly the case in a civil war like Syria that has been going on for almost six years and destroyed three-quarters of the country.
The emergence of a sentiment for peace ushers in the most difficult phase of political conflict: the peace movement opposed by the hard-liners. There are hard-liners in different factions, but united in the emotion that their sacrifices should not be in vain, that they must continue to fight because victory by the enemy is unthinkable. The new axis of conflict becomes victory at any cost, against peace while there still is something to be saved.
Hobbes' solution in Syria would be to let the Assad regime win. None of the fanatical religious factions would bring a stable government; the Assad regime at least has protected minorities like Christians. This solution would be unpalatable to many, especially to outsiders who have other concerns than the plight of the Syrian population. This includes politicians in the U.S. who don't want to look weak, and whose only idea is to throw more military force into the chaos. A really courageous diplomatic move, allying the US and Russia to end the war with an Assad victory, would save lives. The alternatives are to go on destroying what is left of Syria, and generating even more of a refugee crisis.
A U.S. general in Vietnam, after obliterating a village, said that in order to save the place it was necessary to destroy it. Can we learn enough from history to stop following this kind of thinking?
Further analysis in:
Randall Collins, "Tipping Point Revolutions and State-Breakdown Revolutions"