To the officers of the Syrian Arab Army:
Today, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, your boss, has just left the country for the first time since the war began in 2011. Assad doesn't leave town easily, and many observers are surprised to see him braving even a few hours abroad. He's in Moscow on a surprise trip to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
My message to you, on behalf of a world dismayed at your country's plight, is this: Today you have an opportunity to begin an end to the war. All you have to do is drive a few tanks in Damascus a bit west of town to the presidential palace, walk into the Assad family's living room, call up Bashar in Moscow, and politely inform him that his services will no longer be needed and he should remain in Russia.
Then, after you put down the phone, pick it back up to call Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations special envoy to Syria, and let him know that the interim military government of Syria is ready to begin peace talks with Syria's rebels and transition to a democratic government.
That's it. A short drive and two phone calls. You won't have to fire a shot, and you'll have done more to end your country's suffering than any other act by any group in the war's four-year history. You'll have delivered a bigger blow to al-Qaeda and ISIS than a hundred military offenses could accomplish. And you'll take your nation, increasingly reliant on foreign allies and beset by foreign enemies, a large step back toward independence and sovereignty. Only you have this power, and you'll have to act quickly.
You, too, must be suffering under the burden of this war. You have seen your colleagues and your soldiers defect in large numbers to the opposition. Your own communities have come under siege, and if you are Alawite or another minority you may fear for your family's safety.
Most awful of all, you have done terrible things in this war, and even if you have justified this to yourself as necessary, the moral weight of that surely torments you. Perhaps you have heard of the generals in Sri Lanka's civil war, who also committed unspeakable atrocities in their fight, and who might have considered these acts necessary, but who nonetheless found it all so unbearable they often killed themselves before the enemy ever could.
The world will not forget that you have led this slaughter, and that you began the war by following Assad's orders to fire on peaceful demonstrators in 2011, mass murdering civilians in a futile effort to impose obedience. You are not wrong to fear that in signing any peace deal, you risk submitting yourself to the world's judgment, and may one day face down the International Criminal Court or a UN war crimes tribunal.
But consider this: Is spending your final years in a cell in the Hague — a prison so luxurious it's been called "the Hague Hilton" — really so much better than spending those years locked in a war room, which, if Lebanon is any example, you'll be doing for many years to come? And that's if you win, if such a thing is even possible. If you lose, you'll likely end up like Muammar Qaddafi, torn apart by angry rebels in some roadside ditch.
Whatever judgment the world might have for you later on, I feel confident it would welcome you today with open arms if you took that drive to the presidential palace. The Americans have long said that Assad must go, but that his government and military can stay to lead the transition to democracy. The Russians and Iranians make a big show of embracing Assad, but let's not pretend they really care about him; they're just after their own interests, and if you can keep them happy, you'll win their support.
As for the rebels: Yes, they hate you. But they hate Assad more. And most of all, what they want is to end the killing and bring freedom and unity to Syria — perhaps you may sympathize. The only ones who benefit from more death and more chaos are al-Qaeda and ISIS, your greatest enemies.
Yes, a number of the rebels are intertwined with al-Qaeda. But if you earnestly seek peace and make the compromises necessary to get there, you may find that those rebels are more interested in restoring peace to Syria than they are in any extremist agenda. If they truly believe Assad is gone, that you will deliver them a democratic transition and end the persecution against their communities, these rebels could be your allies in fighting extremists.
This, after all, was a lesson of northern Iraq in the mid-2000s: Many Sunni insurgents who'd fought with al-Qaeda turned against the group when they decided they would fare better working with the US and with Iraq's Shia-led government, and began to fight against al-Qaeda. The fact that Iraq's Shia leaders later abused this trust and helped drive northern Iraq back into chaos only goes to show how important it is to make peaceful coexistence work, how imposing your rule by force can never work.
You've been fighting this war now for more than four years. You are, I have little doubt, exhausted both physically and morally by what you've seen and what you've done. But you have an opportunity now to do something to end this war, to take a first step away from killing and sectarianism and toward Syria's return to peace and unity.
The steps after this one won't be easy; there will be more fighting, to drive out al-Qaeda and ISIS, and you are as likely to be treated as a hero as you are to end up in the Hague. But this first step will be, compared with everything that's come before, as easy as an afternoon drive. It's just a few miles up the road. Do it for your country, for your fellow citizens who need a unifying leader more badly than at any time in their history, and for a world that only wishes it had the power you have now.