Syria's agony has generated a variety of unproductive responses: condemnation of the excesses of President Bashar al-Assad's regime; disagreements about the wisdom of armed intervention; and all-around confusion about a viable long-term solution. Worse, in this sorry state of affairs, the world may be getting a glimpse of a very ugly future.
First, let us try to disentangle some of the ironies and contradictions that are bedevilling efforts to end the violence. Whereas Syria denies political freedom to its citizens, it tolerates significantly more social freedom than many other Arab countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, which is leading the charge to oust Assad. Governed by minority Alawites, Syria harbours a kaleidoscope of distinct groups: Arabs, Armenians, Christians, Kurds, Druze, Ismailis and Bedouin.
It is this tolerance of diversity that could be endangered if the Sunni-inspired revolt sweeps the country. And that is why Syria simultaneously generates revulsion at the regime's atrocities and fear of what might follow if the regime is defeated.
In Syria, there can be no examination of the problems of the present without reflecting on the past. In his history of the Arab world in the aftermath of the first world war, A Peace to End all Peace, David Fromkin suggests that the Middle East today reflects the failure of the European powers to consolidate the political systems they imposed. Britain and its allies "destroyed the old order", smashing Turkish rule of the Arabic-speaking Middle East. But then they "created countries, nominated rulers, delineated frontiers, [and introduced] a state system" that would not work.
In the wake of the US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the intervention in Libya, is not the same experiment being repeated?
The combination of ethnic and sectarian fears and rivalries, historical memories, and wilful blindness among outside powers seems almost predestined to destabilise the entire Middle East again. Indeed, the great arc stretching from Cairo to the Hindu Kush threatens to become the locus of global disorder.
Is there a solution? Certainly, one will not be found in more UN resolutions. As Michael Ignatieff has wisely observed, Syria's crisis has revealed that this is "the moment in which the West should see that the world has truly broken into two. A loose alliance of struggling capitalist democracies" is faced by Russia and China.
Western countries' national interests will no longer determine the moral and political impulses of today's global community. Indeed, whatever the outcome, Syria's agony has underscored a further irreversible weakening of the West's dominant global role.
Jaswant Singh is a former Indian finance, foreign and defence minister. Copyright: Project Syndicate