We are letting Assad win

By Nancy E. Soderberg
March 12, 2012

A year into the crisis in Syria, it’s time to admit that the world is prepared to allow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to slaughter his people. Unless force is used to back diplomacy, the international community will let Assad kill tens of thousands more than the 7,500 already lost.

We’ve seen this playbook too many times before — in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Sudan. It is time to face three brutal truths about the crisis. First, no country sees it as sufficiently in its interests to use airstrikes and eventually send forces into Syria to stop the attacks by the Syrian regime — the only way to end the current slaughter. While well intentioned and perhaps saving some lives, all the surrounding activity — summits, special envoys, humanitarian corridors, safe zones, arming the opposition, and efforts to reach a ceasefire — serves as a smokescreen for the Syrian regime to finish the job of wiping out the rebel “terrorists.” These negotiations will not work unless backed by force.

Second, the international community must not be fooled by the regime’s trick of negotiating small sideshows to end the killing. Diplomats will spend days and weeks negotiating tiny windows of breaks in the killing to evacuate the wounded. More weeks will be lost arguing about the details of humanitarian safe zones and corridors. While those steps would help save some lives and are important, they will not stop the crisis — and in fact could well prolong it by diverting attention from the need for force.

For instance, during the genocide in Darfur, the Sudanese played a very sophisticated game of talking about negotiating peace — just enough to forestall serious U.N. Security Council action — while “solving” the Darfur problem militarily. Four hundred thousand people have been killed and 2 million more pushed from their homes. Similarly, in Bosnia in the 1990s, U.S., EU, and U.N. diplomats all wasted time negotiating safe zones and ceasefires, debating arming the opposition, and securing minor concessions from the Serbs while Slobodan Milosevic cleansed the region. Watch the game of cat and mouse about access by the Red Crescent to Homs and Baba Amr — it will only come after the killing.

Third, humanitarian zones do not work well in the midst of a civil war unless backed up by a strong international force. In 1995, the United Nations sought to use its mandate to “deter attacks” on six safe areas in Bosnia and Herzegovina. While the U.N. presence no doubt saved some lives through its delivery of humanitarian assistance and by deterring some Serb attacks, ultimately an estimated 20,000 people, primarily Muslims, were killed in and around the safe areas, with the worst atrocities in Srebrenica, where more than 7,000 men were executed. Safe zones also take time to arrange. In 1994 in Rwanda, it was only after the genocide that safe zones were set up.

The regime in Syria is playing the same games — delay, resist, negotiate small steps — and finish the killing. It is time to stop kidding ourselves and face up to the fact that only the use of force will stop Assad’s assault. We can make ourselves feel better by arming the opposition and negotiating humanitarian aid workers’ access and even safe zones. But those steps will not stop the killing in the short term. It is time to marry force to diplomacy.

Now for the tough question: Who should intervene and how? Syria is vastly more complex and difficult than Libya, not only because of the strength of its regime and army but also given its alliances with Iran and Lebanon and support for Hezbollah and Hamas. That is a reason for caution and good planning, but it is no excuse for standing by and watching the slaughter. Half measures will not work.

First the how. Safe zones will save lives — but the Free Syrian Army is not yet ready to defend them. Only a multinational force made up of capable forces can perform the task of protecting areas along the Syrian border. Troops on the ground are the only way to end the violence and tip the balance so Assad negotiates seriously. Air strikes — recently advocated by Senator John McCain — are essential to protect the safe zones and perhaps the cities next on Assad’s target list.

Next the who. Putting an end to the crisis is most in the interests of the countries in the region. They will deal with the refugees, the economic disruptions and the costs of an ongoing civil war in Syria. They must begin to see the Syrian crisis as sufficiently in their interest to send troops to forcefully protect the population. With the Russians blocking U.N. authorization, a regional coalition of the willing should intervene with troops to stop the bloodshed, with Arab League and NATO endorsement. The majority of the population is, in fact, Sunni Muslim, and Syria’s Sunni neighbors should offer protection. Concerns over a Salifist takeover can be addressed by having non-Saudis intervene. For instance, a multinational force of Turks, Egyptians and Jordanians could protect some cities and safe zones in the short term while negotiations proceed, and a U.N. force would take over once there is a peace to keep. NATO is the only organization capable of the air strikes.

In his Millennium report to the United Nations General Assembly, then-Secretary General Kofi Annan, now the U.N.-Arab League Envoy on Syria, stated: “Surely no legal principle — not even sovereignty — can ever shield crimes against humanity.” In 2005, the General Assembly agreed that the world has a responsibility to protect populations at risk.

When will the world get serious about protecting the Syrians from this slaughter?

PHOTO: Anti-government protesters attend the funeral of Hatam Halabi, whom protesters said was killed during clashes with government troops in earlier protests against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, in Marat al-Numan near the northern province of Idlib, February 29, 2012. REUTERS/Handout

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