The need for an immediate US response in Syria to discourage the further use of chemical weapons does not change the fundamental dilemma of US policy, which is that for very good reasons, the United States does not want either side to win this war. Victory for either side would mean dreadful massacres and ethnic cleansing, as well as an increased threat of international terrorism.

All of this is well known to policymakers in Washington, which explains President Barack Obama’s praiseworthy caution. What the administration now needs to do is to start thinking seriously about the real contours of a Syrian peace settlement, and to turn the Syrian crisis into an opportunity to rethink its overall strategy in the Middle East. In the long run, if Syria is not to disintegrate as a country, there will have to be a peace settlement that guarantees the sharing of power among Syria’s different ethno-religious groups. The participation of Russia, Iran and Iraq in such a settlement will obviously be essential.

Washington, therefore, needs to separate its immediate moral rhetoric in justifying an attack from the language it uses toward Moscow, Tehran and Beijing concerning Syria. It would be helpful in this regard for US officials to remember two facts.

The first is that Russia’s fears concerning the consequences of a rebel victory are neither wicked nor irrational, but are shared by very many analysts in the CIA, the State Department and the Israeli government. The second is that in 1988, when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against Kurdish rebels and Iranian troops, Washington remained carefully silent so as not to help the Iranian side in the war with Iraq.

That silence on Washington’s part does not justify inaction now; but it should certainly discourage demonisation of those who for legitimate reasons fear the consequences of US actions in Syria. US language toward Moscow, Tehran and Beijing should be characterised by respectful disagreement, not arrogant and hypocritical hectoring.

The importance of Russia to the conflict in Syria lies both in its links to the Baath regime, and its good relations with Iran. A deeply negative consequence of the intensifying Syrian crisis has been to undermine the possibility of a new dialogue with Iran that was opened by the victory of the moderate President Hassan Rouhani in the June elections.

One of the grave problems of the Syrian civil war for US policy has been that it has risked entangling the United States even more deeply in an anti-Iranian (and historically at least, anti-Russian) alliance.

This alliance sits badly with America’s own secular and democratic values, with America’s commitment to a legitimate government in Iraq and with America’s hopes for progress in the Muslim world.

The sponsorship of extremism by some of these states poses a threat to American security, and their pathological hatred for the majority sect has contributed to deepening the Middle East’s disastrous sectarian divides.

Using Moscow to develop new relations with Iran is, therefore, necessary not only for a resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue and (eventually) of the Syrian conflict, but also in the long run for the restoration of basic stability in the Middle East.

And it should be noted that while Russia has preserved good relations with Iran, it has also on occasion been prepared to be tough with that country. The intensified UN sanctions eventually agreed to by Russia and China had a severe effect on the Iranian economy and seems to have contributed significantly to Hassan Rouhani’s victory in Iran’s elections.

Of course, a Syrian peace settlement will be terribly difficult to achieve, and will probably not be achievable until both sides have fought themselves into a state of exhaustion.

Nonetheless, the basic contours of any long-term settlement are already clear, as is the need for Iranian and Russian participation. While sending a strong military signal to Damascus and other regimes to never again use chemical weapons, Washington should at the same time intensify attempts to lay the diplomatic basis for this eventual settlement.

Courtesy Khaleej Times.