WASHINGTON -- Maybe it's time for Syrian revolutionaries to take "yes" for an answer from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and back a U.N.-sponsored "managed transition" of power there, rather than rolling on toward a civil war that will bring more death and destruction for the region.
Syria announced Tuesday that it was ready to accept a peace plan proposed by U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan. The Syrian announcement in Beijing followed endorsement of the plan by China and Russia. The proposal has many weaknesses, but it could open the way toward a "soft landing" in Syria that would remove Assad without shattering the stability of the country.
Yes, I recognize that moderate diplomatic solutions like these are for wimps. The gung-ho gang has been advocating supplying arms to the Syrian opposition, setting up no-fly zones and other versions of a military solution. Morally, it's hard to dispute the justice of the opposition's cause; the problem is that these military solutions will get a lot more innocent civilians killed, and destroy the delicate balance of the Syrian state.
We should learn from recent history in the Middle East and seek a non-military solution in Syria -- even with the inevitable fuzziness and need for compromise with unpleasant people. A Syria peace deal will also give a starring role to Russia and China, two countries that don't deserve the good press. That's OK with me: Vladimir Putin gets a ticker-tape parade if he can help broker a relatively peaceful departure for Assad.
The case for this cautious, managed transition can be summarized with a four-letter word: Iraq.
Looking back at the Iraq War, one of the most damaging mistakes was that after toppling Saddam Hussein, the U.S. went on to destroy Iraq's state structure and its army. Without these institutions, the country had no stability and Iraqis retreated for self-protection to the most basic loyalties of sect and tribe. In this sense, the U.S. invasion unintentionally and tragically sent Iraq hurtling backward in time. Iraq gained a measure of "democracy," but lost social cohesion.
The U.S. shouldn't make the same mistake in Syria, no matter how appealing the opposition's pleas for weapons. We've seen this movie before. We know that it leads to a kind of lawlessness that's very hard to reverse. And we know, too, that for all the perversions of Assad and his Baathist goons, the Syrian state and army are national institutions that transcend the ruling family, his Alawite sect or the corrupt Baathists who hijacked the nation in the 1960s.
I credit the Obama administration for resisting the growing chorus of calls to arm the Syrian rebels -- and for continuing to seek Moscow's help even after the Russians foot-dragging that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (imprudently but accurately) described last month as "despicable."
It's a moment for realpolitik: The West needs Russia's help in removing Assad without a civil war, and Russia needs to broker a transition to bolster its future influence in the Arab world. That's the pragmatic logic that's driving Annan's peace effort.
Political change (even the cautious, managed-transition version I'm urging) won't come to Syria without some bloodshed. Over the past year, it has been one-sided, with perhaps 10,000 opposition fighters and civilians slaughtered by Assad's forces, but there's bound to be some settling of scores. Friends of Syria should start thinking about ways to prevent reprisals against the Alawite and Christian communities that have been loyal to the regime, once Assad is on a plane for Doha or Moscow. I hope Annan will reach out to religious leaders of these minority communities to offer them reassurance they won't be massacred if Assad goes.
The alternative to a diplomatic soft landing is a war that shatters the ethnic mosaic in Syria. It's easy to imagine Sunni militias gaining control of central cities such as Homs, Hama and Idlib, while Alawites retreat to parts of Damascus and Latakia province in the north. Assad might still claim to be president in this scenario, but he would be little more than a warlord (albeit one with access to chemical weapons). It's a grim scenario in which Western air power would have limited effect.
Patrick Seale, who probably knows Syria better than any other Western writer, captured in his biography of Assad's father the brutal, fight-to-the-death code that led to the massacre in Hama 30 years ago: "Fear, loathing and a river of spilt blood ruled out any thought of a truce." You can only pray that the same no-compromise logic doesn't prevail today, on either side.
David Ignatius's email address is davidignatius(at)washpost.com.Copyright 2012 Washington Post Writers Group