Only negotiations can save Syrians from more killing

The proposals for talks with the Assad regime remain the best hope for a swift peace in Syria and the Middle East

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In Looking at Iran, a report on Iran's precipitous decline in Arab public esteem, our polling found a deepening sectarian divide that threatens to unravel several states, posing a long-term challenge to the region's stability.

Several Arab states are already in turmoil, victims of this phenomenon. Sectarian tension in Lebanon, an old story, is growing again. Iraq has exploded anew into sectarian violence. The situation in Kuwait bears watching.

Our polling shows that most Arabs blame Iran for this division.

Indeed, from the early days of the Islamic Republic, Iran has worked hard to earn this reputation, agitating, provoking and meddling. When challenged, they fall back on time-tested claims to be leading "resistance against the West".

For a while, it worked. But in brutally crushing domestic opposition and in overt sectarianism in Iraq, Bahrain and now Syria, the Iranian government has, our polling shows, defined itself as a sectarian power determined to defend not the people's will, but their own self-interest.

Too many regional players have chosen to respond to this not by working to diffuse tensions but by pouring petrol on raging fires - most recently in Syria.

The Ba'ath regime is supported by Russia, Iran, Hizbollah and elements in the Iraqi government. Arrayed against them are a host of Syrians (including militias receiving arms and support from some Arab states and Turkey) and thousands of Sunni foreign fighters (some of them affiliated with Al Qaeda).

Using apocalyptic rhetoric, each side warns of calamities if it loses, while promising that with victory all will be well. But this deadly zero-sum game is fatally flawed: in reality this is a war no one can win.

For months now the regime and the opposition have both been predicting victory. At one point, Aleppo was soon to fall. Then Damascus was threatened. Now the regime is promising a "decisive" victory in Qusayr.

It is all illusion. There will be no decisive victory, only stalemate and the unravelling of Syria. The entire region could be in danger of descending into a sectarian hell.

A front-page photo in the New York Times caught my attention recently. It showed a bombed-out street scene in Aleppo. The destruction was horrific. In the foreground a young man with a semi-automatic weapon in his lap sat in a chair apparently salvaged from someone's living room. The caption read "Syria's Rebels Make Gains in Aleppo".

The question that occurred to me was "if this picture shows a 'gain', what will victory look like?"

Because so many have died and so many others have lost everything but their lives, and because so many Syrians, especially its vulnerable Christian minority, are living in fear, this madness must end. All sides and their sponsors must be made to realise that in continuing this conflict no one will win, and everyone will lose.

As the events of the last week have made clear, the necessary consensus is still far off.

The opposition coalition and its fighting forces remain hopelessly divided, with a fractured leadership and competing agendas. And the regime, as tone-deaf as ever, still believes that it can weather this storm. The two sides' sponsors and supporters, East and West, appear determined to continue to fuel the conflict, in the belief that they can secure some advantage.

My father-in-law, who possessed a delightfully sardonic wit, had an expression he would use in a situation like this. One day, while driving on the motorway, he realised that he had become lost. But the road ahead appeared to be clear of traffic (a rarity in his part of the world), and so he joked, "we don't know where we're going, but we're making good time".

When I hear US Senator John McCain calling for more arms, air strikes, no-fly zones and the like, and when I hear the dangerous pronouncements coming from apologists for the various sides, I want to ask them all "do you know where are you going, and where this is taking Syria's people and what it is doing to the region?"

In light of all this, it should be apparent to all that negotiations must take place, at once, to bring all the combatants and their supporters together to seek an end to this conflict.

Talks will not be pretty. But those who fear that Iran will emerge victorious if a negotiated solution is found are mistaken. That ship has sailed - Iran has exhausted its regional standing.

And those who fear that a failed state full of extremists would be the inevitable result of any compromise are also mistaken. In fact the best guarantee against these nightmare scenarios would be a negotiated solution endorsed by the international community.

It should be clear that at this point no resolution will be perfect. But even an imperfect peace would end the bloodletting, putting Syria on the long and difficult road to reconstruction and reconciliation.

Peace would spare millions of lives and may save the region from the scourge of an unending sectarian conflict. That is why the proposal for talks, from the US and Russia, should be embraced. It remains the last best hope for Syria and the Middle East.

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa