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Getting Serious About Syria

As humanitarian horrors mount, the West grows defensive. Let’s not kid ourselves: This is Bosnia, Kosovo, and Libya all over again.


In this photo taken on a government-organized tour for the media, Syrian citizens pass by a Syrian government army tank.(AP Photo/Muzaffar Salman)

We’ve seen this horror movie before. Distracted by other events, the West ignores a distant humanitarian disaster, then denies it, minimizes it, and explains it away. But as images of murdered women and children are transmitted onto newspaper front pages, nightly broadcasts, and (now) the Internet, the pressure to act grows unbearable, no matter the cost.

We are likely to watch the same script play out very quickly in Syria, where the regime of Bashar al Assad has been brutally suppressing an insurrection for months. U.S. and Europeans officials are, for the most part, still in the same stage of denial,  minimization, and explaining-it-away that they were in a few months ago. While people are dying by the thousands, the Western nations are still arguing that military intervention in Syria is not practical, and that it is legally impossible without a U.N. Security Council resolution that the Russians and Chinese are blocking.


(PICTURES: The Three Faces of the Syria Uprising)

The United States, France, and Great Britain are laying most of the blame for their inaction on Moscow, Assad’s strongest ally. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, meeting recently with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, sought to deliver a sense of urgency about the killings and suggested that Russia was jeopardizing its relations with the rest of the Arab world and putting the legitimacy of the U.N. at risk. One senior Western official grew notably defensive on Thursday, contrasting what the West and Arab League have done so far (including calls for Assad to step down, backed by a 70-nation “Friends of Syria” meeting in Tunis on Friday) with the international silence that greeted Bashar al Assad’s father, Hafez, when in 1982 he crushed a rebellion by killing perhaps 20,000 people in the town of Hama. “Look how different the response has been,” he said. “The deeper the regime goes into repression, the closer it brings the country to the end of the story. Because this story will have an end.”

But in truth, the end is nowhere in sight. As Joshua Landis, a highly respected Syria expert, writes in the forthcoming Middle East Policy journal, the Assad regime is entrenched and can likely endure through this year. And how many more will die on video before the end comes? The self-approbation we’re hearing from the West is disingenuous at best. Hama occurred without tweets, or cell-phone videos , or the Internet. Today, by contrast, the pressure to intervene will escalate quickly in proportion to the terrible images coming out of Syria. The death this week of a highly respected American war correspondent, Marie Colvin of the Sunday Times of London, who filed a moving final dispatch before being killed by a Syrian rocket, only punctuated the inadequacy of the Western response so far. It is a response that is all the more embarrassing in contrast to the regime-change success that  the U.S., France, and Great Britain were proudly pointing to in Libya only a few months ago.


True, Syria is a particularly hard problem, a country riven by a complex network of tribal and ethnic divisions. The regime seems to have more support than Muammar el-Qaddafi’s did in Libya a year ago, both inside and outside the country, and the rise of Islamist factions is a real threat. Western officials are now pointing to the broad coalition being formed, even with Russia and China preventing action in the Security Council.  “We’re talking 70-plus countries on the heels of a U.N. General Assembly vote that was overwhelmingly in support of the Syrian people, the Syrian opposition, so we believe there’s strong international pressure on Assad,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. 

On Friday, a draft of an ultimatum issued to Assad was circulated, calling on "the Syrian government to implement an immediate cease-fire and to allow free and unimpeded access by the United Nations and humanitarian agencies to carry out a full assessment of needs in Homs and other areas."

But without an imminent military threat confronting him, such words are unlikely to move Assad very much. The Syrian dictator has cast his lot; like Shakespeare’s Macbeth, he has already waded so deeply into bloodshed that it is too late for him to turn back.

More active solutions are being hinted at, especially covertly arming the Syrian opposition through Arab countries, which is already occurring. “It’s not something we’re not encouraging,” a senior U.S. official told National Journal this week. Anne-Marie Slaughter, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s former policy planning chief, also proposed more active support for the loosely organized Free Syrian Army allowing it to set up “no-kill zones.”  Even Slaughter appeared to be criticizing her former superiors for their laggard response. “The mantra of those opposed to intervention is ‘Syria is not Libya,’ ” she wrote. “In fact, Syria is far more strategically located than Libya, and a lengthy civil war there would be much more dangerous to our interests.”


It’s highly unlikely that the gradual arming of the Syrian opposition will be enough. U.S. presidents have a way of getting dragged into situations they never wanted to address, convinced that it is not directly related to U.S. national interests. Obama has already experienced this in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. Something similar happened to Bill Clinton in Somalia, Bosnia, and finally in East Timor, a faraway island that lay at the furthest reaches of the faraway nation of Indonesia — in other words, about as distant as you can get from what was once considered America’s national interest. In 1999, Indonesian-backed militias who didn't want the East Timorese people to declare independence were hacking separatists to death with machetes. People were dying by the thousands, just as they are now, in the full glare of the international media. But initially Clinton’s national security adviser, Sandy Berger, flippantly told reporters that he didn't "intervene" every time his daughter messed up her room at college.

Then a strange thing happened. Clinton found that, no matter how hard he tried, he could not get away from the East Timor crisis. It kept popping up in front of him, like some maddening ghost image, no matter which way he turned. There it was in TV and newspaper headlines, in reporters’ persistent questions, and at the top of his discussions with other heads of state at an annual summit of Pacific Rim nations. Ultimately, a U.N. Security Council resolution authorized Australian-led special-operations forces to go in and stop the killing.

Something like that will have to happen now, once the West stops minimizing the crisis; even if the U.N. Security Council remains paralyzed, the newly empowered Arab League can provide a cover of legitimacy. All that remains to be done is to summon up the will to act.

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