Syria’s insoluble puzzle

Syria’s insoluble puzzle

“In the last 48 hours, we have had an average of one Syrian killed every 25 minutes. One Syrian wounded every 13 minutes.” That was U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura’s assessment of the carnage, as the shaky cease-fire in the Syrian civil war collapsed late last week.

In the divided northern city of Aleppo, a series of airstrikes on the rebel-held side killed more than 60 people, including patients at a hospital supported by Doctors Without Borders and the International Red Cross. Eyewitnesses said the hospital was “reduced to rubble.”

The blame for the attack falls on the Syrian air force and Russia, which provides air support for the Syrian government. Russia is firmly on the side of the Assad regime, as are Iran and Hezbollah. The chief aim of the United States, on the other hand, is the destruction of the Islamic State group, which has carved out swaths of northern Syria and Iraq as home to its self-proclaimed caliphate. Despite their conflicting aims, the U.S. and Russia have found ways to cooperate in seeking to broker a peace deal. It is in everyone’s interests for such cooperation to succeed.

But in response to recent efforts to get the parties to commit to peace talks, the Syrian government has sought to tie regaining the Golan Heights, which Israel won in the 1967 Six Day War and annexed in 1981, to attendance at the negotiations. And the tattered Syrian regime has added inflated bravado to the mix: “All options are on the table for getting back the occupied territory from Israel” — including by force, Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad reportedly said.

The Golan Heights demand is a distraction. It is also a nonstarter. First, Israel has made clear that the issue is not up for discussion. And second, there is no functioning Syrian government with which Israel could reasonably negotiate, even if it had an interest in doing so — which it does not.

Rather than be distracted, the world needs to remain focused on the horrific human cost of the ongoing Syrian carnage. According to the United Nations, nearly 5 million Syrians have fled the country since 2011. More than 6 million others have been internally displaced. The refugee crisis has strained the stability of Jordan and Lebanon, which, along with Turkey, have taken in the vast majority of the fleeing Syrians. And the waves of refugees trying to reach Europe have transformed its once-open societies, which provided unintended cover for terrorists and encouraged xenophobes on the right.

Continued bloodletting in Syria serves no one’s interests. But if the major powers continue to use what’s left of Syria as a battleground through which they and their proxies duke it out diplomatically and militarily, no one will win, and everyone will lose.

It is long past time for some sane international leadership to resolve the ongoing devastation in Syria.