The vicious Syrian civil war has put the world’s two biggest nuclear powers on a collision course over a small Levantine nation of no strategic interest to Washington. This cannot be allowed to go on.

News that the US and Russia will hold a Syrian peace conference this month is most welcome and long overdue.

As Benjamin Franklin so wisely noted: “There is no good war, and no bad peace.”

Moscow has been calling for such a conference for two years. But Washington rejected the idea in hope that the Syrian rebels it was backing would prevail. However, now that the Syrian war is in stalemate, the US has opted, albeit reluctantly, for a diplomatic effort to end its war before the whole region goes up in flames.

Syria is the latest example of Henry Kissinger’s famous quip, “being a US ally is often more dangerous than being its enemy.”

The Assad government in Damascus was for decades a tacit Western ally that suppressed militant Islamists, kept its border with Israel quiet, and interrogated prisoners for US intelligence services. Damascus even muted claims to its Golan Heights, illegally annexed by Israel after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

But good behaviour and cooperation did not help Syria when the US, Britain, France and Israel decided to go after Iran, Syria’s leading ally. When Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad refused to join the US-led alliance of Western powers and conservative Arab states against Iran, his nation’s fate was sealed.

“The road to Tehran runs through Damascus,” went up the cry. Syria was marked for Iraq-style destruction.

In Syria, Washington encouraged growing animosity between Sunni and Shia Muslims, which it had found so useful in breaking Sunni resistance in Iraq.

What began in Syria as a small, non-violent protest against the Assad regime was met by typical brutal repression and quickly grew into a national rebellion. Recalling the Western-engineered uprising that overthrew Libya’s Muammar Gadaffi, the West and its Arab allies quickly armed, financed and directed Syria’s insurgents. As in Libya, the cutting edge of the rebellion were militant Islamists.

France, Syria’s former colonial ruler, played a quiet but important role, supplying the rebels communications gear and anti-tank weapons. It seems intent in reasserting its former colonial influence in West Africa, the Sahel, Lebanon and Syria.

The US stayed in the background, providing finance, advanced equipment and political support, letting ally Turkey do most of the work.

But after two years of vicious fighting, the Syrian civil war appears stalemated. The cautious US President Barack Obama seems reluctant to get US forces involved in a Mideast ground war - and for good reason. The US military is dangerously stretched across the globe and the US Treasury runs on money borrowed from China and Japan. But Obama is under intense political pressure from warlike Republicans, the religious far-right, and partisans of Israel to crush Syria, then Iran.

As a result, Obama has been dithering while Syria bleeds and its war threatens to spread to Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. Last week, Israel launched heavy air strikes against Syrian military targets, a clear act of war, killing some 80 Syrian soldiers.

It was unclear if Israel was, indeed, trying to destroy shipments of long-ranged artillery rockets being sent from Iran to Lebanese ally Hezbollah, as it claimed, or launching a campaign to defeat the Assad government by destroying its air and armoured forces.

According to reports, Israel did not give the US prior warning of its air strikes against Syria. Here in Washington, many security officials are now wondering if Israel might drag the US into a war with Iran in a similar fashion.

What is clear: Syria is being ground up and pulverised. Like Iraq, it is being severely punished for pursuing a defiant, independent policy and refusing to comply with Western plans for the Mideast. Syria is also serving as a whipping boy in the place of Iran - a graphic message to Tehran of what can happen if its nuclear programme is not switched off.

n    The writer is an award-winning, internationally syndicated columnist. His articles appear in the New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Gulf Times, Khaleej Times and other news sites in Asia. He is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post, Lew Rockwell and Big Eye. He appears as an expert on foreign affairs on CNN, BBC, France 2, France 24, Fox News, CTV and CBC.