What is most appalling about the Syrian tragedy is not the viciousness of the Syrian regime, but its committing mass murders under the watching eyes of the international community and its complete indifference to the condemnation and warnings of major powers. How could a regime deprived of legitimacy at home with helpless military capabilities behave so outrageously?
Blame it on Russia and China who have obstructed efforts in the UN National Security Council to hold Assad regime responsible for murders. Disgraceful, regretful, and obstructive are their actions, no doubt, but are they an intervention stopper? When Russia and China objected to enforcing no-fly-zones in Iraq, the United States and United Kingdom could care less. Russia’s strong opposition was not good enough to make the United States and the United Kingdom think twice before invading Iraq in 2003. When Russia and China abstained from the UN vote and expressed concerns about the use of force in the case of Libya, NATO bothered little, if any. In short, Russian or Chinese opposition to action is a convenient excuse but not a credible reason for why the rest of the international community has thus far failed to safeguard civilians.
A more sober analysis warns that the risk of intervention would outweigh non-intervention. A military intervention in Syria would instigate a civil war. This is a legitimate concern had reality in Syria been otherwise. A civil war is already underway, and massacres are and will continue to make headlines as long as the Assad regime is unrestrained. Effectively, doing nothing amounts to a license to kill with impunity. Thanks to Bashar’s killing machine,Syria is now beyond the reach of any diplomatic means. Only through the creation of safe zones, providing humanitarian aid to civilians, and dispatching a UN monitoring mission, the regime can be checked and lives can be saved.
The more telling but ill-conceived argument is based on a strategic calculus. The argument goes intervention might unleash unprecedented, uncontrolled forces, threatening a wide-spread chaos in the Levant. Therefore, the less risky option is to keep a lid on it. No one knows for sure what might happen were the Assad regime to fall, but one thing is certain: Western countries have tolerated and even occasionally supported the regime, at the expense of its own citizens’ welfare and stability in neighboring countries.
For years key powers have believed that the Assad regime plays an indispensable role in altering the shape of conflicts in the region. To a large extent this presumption is valid but should be amended by the fact that the Assad regime has used regional crises for no other purpose except to secure its hold on power. It sought to control regional crises by various means: occupation, supporting local militias, sowing the seeds of division, and undermining reconciliation efforts.
Take the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. From the very start, the Syrian regime competed to control the Palestinian leadership, to assume a dominant role on the Palestinian question. But as the Palestinian national movement gradually secured its independence, it shattered the myth of no peace without the blessing of Syria. To regain influence, the Assad regime has supported the main rival to Fatah, Hamas, and worked against Palestinian unity.
Another example is Syria’s three decades of occupation in Lebanon, which severely worsened the country’s fragile state and stability. Although Syria’s troops withdrew from Lebanonin 2006, the Syrian regime continues to influence Lebanese politics through its close connection to the Shi’a Islamic militant group, Hezbollah.
And let us not forget the Iranian-Syrian axis. Through its alliance with Iran, the Syrian regime has sought to secure a strategic importance as regional and western powers try to weaken the influence of Iran in the region. Only if Syria could be separated from Iran, the optimists hope, Iranian influence will diminish. But Syria is unwilling to do so, for it would lose bargaining power as a result. The keep-a-lid-on-it strategy is no solution to the root causes of instability in the region. Bashar’s Syria will continue to play its sinister hand in regional conflicts, perpetually blocking efforts to bring resolution and agitating the forces of instability.
There should be no more excuses. The gravity of the situation was brought home with the recent bombing attack on the National Security building, in which a score of top level security officials were killed, including the interior minister, the defense minister, and the brother-in-law of the president. Syria has already descended into a bloody chaos. Unless a humanitarian mission is implemented soon, more atrocities will make the headlines. This is not a call for an Iraq-style occupation of Syria but to take the necessary measure to protect civilians. It is time to abandon wishful thinking and accept the responsibility to intervene in Syria.
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Distributed via Foreign Policy in Focus