Syria is a killing ground today, but it was a peaceful, friendly place when I visited as a tourist five years ago. The people I met could not have been more welcoming. One day, as I walked down a crowded street in Aleppo, looking for photo opportunities, I heard a man behind me call: "Take my wife's picture!"
Wheeling around, I found myself face to face with a charming middle-aged couple. He had a receding hairline. She wore a black and white hijab that covered her hair while framing her gold-rimmed spectacles and a sweet smile. I asked to take a photo that included both of them, and they agreed. The man wrapped his left arm around his wife while giving me a thumbs-up sign of approval with his right hand.
That was May 2010. Ten months later, in March 2011, peaceful protests against the repressive government of Bashar al-Assad turned into civil war. The question now is whether the United States should get more involved in the conflict. My hope is that our leaders in Washington pursue a diplomatic solution rather than plunge America into yet another Middle Eastern quagmire.
The unhappy fact is that Syria now is a broken country where ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) and a dozen other major rebel groups operate in a violent landscape of bombings and beheadings. Assad's Alawites, a Shia Muslim sect, have ruled a Sunni Muslim majority since 1970 in Syria, which has become the center of several proxy wars. The players include Shiite Iran, Sunni Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, which is most worried about the Kurdish groups that want to separate from Turkey on its southeastern border.
The U.S. is part of a multi-country coalition bombing ISIS while calling for Assad's ouster. Russia has joined the fray to support its longtime ally Assad by bombing anti-government forces that are backed by Western countries.
More than 220,000 people have died in the Syrian war, and nearly half of the country's population of 22 million has been displaced, contributing to the refugee crisis in Europe. Syria has become controlled in part by ISIS, which most recently grabbed the world's attention with its Paris attacks on Nov. 13.
Washington hardliners are calling for the U.S. to send in thousands of ground troops to fight ISIS. Five days after the Paris attacks, retired Army Gen. Jack Keane recommended expanding U.S. military action against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. In testimony before a congressional committee, Keane described a plan that would require at least 10,000 troops. A few days later, Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham joined the chorus of those who want the U.S. to dispatch ground forces to fight ISIS.
In reality, we have seen this movie before, and it did not have a happy ending.
As University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer explained in a November NewsHour interview: "... there is no question that if you put 100,000 or 150,000 troops in there, you could defeat ISIS, but then you run into the 'What-Next Question.' What are we going to do, stay in there, and occupy the place? ... we have to find some sort of diplomatic solution."
While the debate rages about what to do, here are three important points:
An American invasion is exactly what ISIS wants. William McCants, an early Islam historian and a se
nior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told the NewsHour in November that ISIS "believes that the end of the world is approaching ... And that (its) kingdom is going to wage an epic battle against the infidels before it all comes tumbling down."
Terrorists win or lose only in terms of how we respond. As columnist Ezra Klein wrote a few days ago: "The attack ISIS launched against Paris is a horror. But it should take nothing away from its tragedy to say more Americans have died from gun violence in seven days than (all those who) died in the Paris attacks. That's not to downplay the threat of terrorism, but rather to highlight what makes it different: its capacity to terrorize. ... Fear makes people do stupid things, and it makes countries do stupid things, too. "
Many experts, including former President Jimmy Carter, say that the best hope for Syria is a diplomatic solution. In a New York Times opinion article in October, Carter proposed a five-state plan to end the conflict. He wrote that Russia and Iran must be involved, along with the U.S., Turkey and Saudi Arabia. "The needed concessions are not from the combatants in Syria, but from the proud nations that claim to want peace but refuse to cooperate with one another."
Carter's proposal for diplomacy that leads to a political solution may be more complicated and more time-consuming than putting U.S. ground troops into the Middle East again. But it is the best outcome for Syria. For that nice couple I met in Aleppo. And for all the rest of us.
Molly Sinclair McCartney, is the co-author with James McCartney of "America's War Machine: Vested Interests, Endless Conflicts." James McCartney, a Washington-based national security correspondent for the Knight-Ridder newspapers, was working on the book when he died in 2011 at his home on Anna Maria Island. His wife, former Washington Post staff writer Molly Sinclair McCartney, completed the book, which was published in October by St. Martin's Press.