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


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

The only current solution to the Syrian problem is for the Arab states themselves to force Assad out of power. They have the military means to do so and Russia and China would not dare make any serious attempt to thwart an all-Arab solution. As long as the Arab states wait for the West to act Assad will continue to murder his own citizens and Russia and China will continue to block any potential, if unlikely, meaningful UN solution. It is time for the Saudi’s and others to step up to the plate.

Posted by 1066ad | Report as abusive

This is perhaps the most disgusting article I have ever read. Shame on the author for such thoughts let alone printing them up on a journal.

You are advocating peace and freedom through violence — no matter how vague you tried to make it appear. Does that make any sense to you at all? Think again, and think real hard this time.

I come from a country that is a living example of freedom through peaceful protests, India. You’ve cited numerous times in world history when the “global community” has failed to act in times of need by using brute force. Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya (add Somalia, Sierra Leone and many more) all attempted to gain their freedom through force/violence. How well are they doing now? I’ve been to atleast a few of these countries and I can say that they are not any better than they were before gaining “peace and freedom”, if not taking a turn for the worse.

I’m not saying my country is fantastically brilliant. We’ve got thinks we need to work on too. But hey, 1.2~ billion people can sleep at ease and you don’t see mad men running around the streets with Kalashnikovs. Freedom through violence will never work, ever. Keep a tab on Libya and Egypt. Both had revolutions take place within the past two years. One had a much peaceful outcome than the other; both ultimately freeing themselves of their “dictators”. See which country is in a better state, say 5 or 10 years from now.

You are not making the world a better place with your shorted sighted views. Sure, it will take a much longer time and many more lives are lost in due process. But one thing is assured, people are guaranteed to live in peace once achieved. Can you make such guarantees with your armed/violent methods for peace and freedom?

- Freedom and independence to the world through peace.

Posted by ganesh.rao | Report as abusive

We are faced with a future where what is occurring in Syria will happen again and again all over the world. If we do not come up with a permanent way of dealing with these conflicts, we are condemning a vast number of people to horrific deaths. While no solution is perfect, here is one that could work: Create a huge multinational force under the UN with a mandate to intervene in all of these conflicts under a specific set of rules. By huge, I mean a standing army of maybe 10 million with full air and naval capability. The deterrent effect would be considerable. If Assad, for example, knew that he would be invaded by a fully capable million man force next week, he might just be willing to talk this week. I believe that such a force would only have to be used once or twice and that would end all of the conflicts.

Posted by steve778936 | Report as abusive

A military solution is the only one that Assad understands. The Arab states with some limited military assistance on the Wests part maybe the best way to go. Ground forces first, combined with air support sounds good to me. It will be bloody until a coup attempt is tried by upper levels of the military, who see that they cant a win like this one.

Posted by greenspy | Report as abusive

This author represents American policy and culture at large.

There is a trouble spot in the world, and America starts telling what foreigners what to do. Policing the world by economic and military force according to America ‘manifest exceptionism’, a sort of self-prescribed high morality and superior wisdom somehow bestowed by the Christian God.

Two hundred years into this American hubris and it is still going strong. But the world has been sick of it for a long time.

What’s happening in Syria is none of America business.

I for one would enjoy seeing Syran president Assad going on TV and lecture America on its moral and military degeneracy in Afghanistan, and unfettered political and economic corruption at home. Would Nancy write a column titled “America problems is none of your business Assad!”

Posted by TomKi | Report as abusive

Maybe it’s time to reassess the uprisings in the Middle East through a lens of cold reality that goes beyond our natural tendencies to champion democracy everywhere. The internal conflicts between sects are intense and insoluble, especially given the rise of militant Islamic fundamentalism over the past 30 years, which brooks no dissenting views. So far, the primary model that has worked to maintain some semblance of order and stability has been that of a dictator representing the Baath movement, which espouses nationalism and modernism over sectarian loyalties that are essentially medieval and intractable. So far, the actual removal of that strongman has led to civil war (Libya, and now Iraq, since our departure), or the replacement of one dictatorship with another (Egypt). These results make the blood spilled by the protesting masses at best meaningless, and at worst a one way ticket to bloody chaos. And on the rare occasion that a true democratic vote is held we’re disappointed by the legitimate results (Palestine). My concern is with the possible realpolitik of the situation: that mass uprisings in the Middle East will ultimately pave the way to first chaos, then the forging of an area-wide fundamentalist rule that will then turn to the pursuit of their stated goal of restoring the caliphate through conquest. Rather than dismantling the Baathist parties at every turn (as we did in Iraq), we should be supporting their reform and liberalization.

Posted by khiggi | Report as abusive

I commend the author for having the integrity and guts to cut out the rhetoric, describe the issue and put in a remedy (likeable or not). As others have said, Assad is like his father (a butcher) and only understands brutality – he will only break if he is broken. These types of dictators dont understand reason and dont do what is just. They are sociopaths, murderers and cowards – spit on them and they will say “oh, it’s raining.” A uniform resolution must be executed, one that will have to exclude the support of China and Russia (who are both putting their economic and political interests ahead of saving human lives) and a military solution must be implemented.

Posted by puzzled | Report as abusive

Foreign policy: pursuing one’s own national interests under the guise of morality. Apparently it isn’t in the US’s national interest to intervene militarily in Syria. Israel has probably urged restraint, behind closed doors, as they would be subjected to inevitable, retaliatory proxy strikes. Nuclear negotiations with Iran are probably considered a higher priority, and a strike would set those back. Etc, etc. But, as the author writes, there is only one moral choice. Is there a moral component to US foreign policy? The vast majority of nations, as well as the Arab League would support US strikes. If fact, using our military to defend Muslims would probably do more to fight terrorism than anything we’re currently doing in Afghanistan.

Posted by Dannnnnnn | Report as abusive

Ganesh: regarding your comment about 1.2 billion people being able to sleep soundly because India protests peacefully, I wonder what Qutubuddin Ansari would say about that. The Gujarat riots and the Ayodhya Mosque riots are two examples of how things played out otherwise.

Posted by bobbymacReuters | Report as abusive

What? Have we not learned enough from Iraq and Afghanistan?

Posted by The_Traveler | Report as abusive

As a Syrian Christian I am shocked by the comment from the person asking for Saudi’s help.
Are you asking Saudi,the most backward regime in the universe to interfere in Syria’s internal affair? Do you know or ever heard anything about Saudi’s regime? They decapitate so called criminals in public, they cut hands in public, they decapitated 500 people after the seizure grand mosque. Assad regime is secular and Christians are fairly tolerated. Do you believe a regime installed in Syria by Saudi would tolerate non-muslims? I doubt!!! Women in Assad Syria have all sort of rights , a Saudi puppet regime in Syria will send back syrian women to pre-historic time.
You do not know anything about Saudi, you better live there for a while to know these “Freedom Fighters”. I rather live in a cave than to live under Saudi puppet regime.

Posted by cconnelly | Report as abusive

Is there a vote down option on article that looks unworthy? I would like to do that on this article.

Posted by JoeAtLowell | Report as abusive


“By huge, I mean a standing army of maybe 10 million with full air and naval capability”

…..and how will we get and maintain such a large standing army? Where would they be housed when there “is” no war to intervene in? Whose weapons, planes, ships would this force be using or will this force need to arm itself from scratch?

Who will decide when/where/how to use this force? The UN has problems dealing with minor issues, much less giving them authority on something this large and far reaching.

How would you feel if this force was used to counter something that is in the best interest of this country?

Posted by Bumsteer | Report as abusive

bobbymacReuters: Do you know how many people were actually involved in the Gujarat riots and Ayodhya Mosque/Ram Mandhir? Less than 1,000 (probably directly involved – uninfluenced) to a maximum estimate of 50,000~ (minimal impact; influenced through our beautiful corrupt media).

If you cannot comprehend the disparity between 1-50K and 1.2 billion: to help you better understand; 158,400 people die on the spot on our high-ways alone (2007 estimate).

Yes, I understand that math and ratio is no excuse for what happened. A single life lost for such a cause is of great shame to the society and nation as a whole. I’m aware of what is happening in Jammu & Kashmir too and it is disgusting. Like I said earlier, we are no gems. But I do believe we are on the right track for a better future (as long as we keep the guns at bay).

If you read about Ayodhya from your news paper, you are naive, my fellow reader. Your news sources are politically and economically motivated. When there is the slightest chance for profitability, stories are dragged out of thin air and blown out of proportion, often with ideas that never pan out. From the correspondents on the ground (chance for spotlight), all the way up to the board of directors (big money in the pocket).

Violence or armed conflict has never been the answer to anything. If you do believe in it, you are no better than the ones you are waging war against.

- Peace be onto the planet.

Posted by ganesh.rao | Report as abusive

The Syrian rebels are being used to undercut Iran’s ally Syria by the Arab Gulf sates, especially Saudi Arabia. To at least some extent it is a continuation of the Sunni / Shia conflict withing Islam. We have no place in that conflict, and we do not have a clue about what it means to the people involved.

The USA constantly misreads other countries and cultures. Most Americans do not want to die to project some idealogue’s concept of what the world should be like, but would like the Social Security and Medicare they have been paying for instead. Our record in “nation building” stinks, and our price tag attached is gargantuan.

America seems to understand nothing about the Middle East, and if we do, we must deliberately make dumb decisions.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

While it is extremely important to help the Syrian people now. If the U.S. wants to help with medical and food aid, and humanitarian services, that would be sensible. But stay out of getting involved in military assistance now. It’s time for Syria’s neighbors to take a stand before anyone else. There are many people in the U.S. wishing they could get assistance from the government. The states hit by natural disasters need help. People losing their homes need help. We need to invest in updating and fixing our own infrastructure and reform before someone else’s. There are ways to help without U.S. military intervention.

Posted by BuffaloGirl | Report as abusive

Ganesh – you must understand your opponent: passive resistance was the perfect tactic for India to use against the British at that time. By taking the moral high road, Gandhi and India shamed England into leaving. This only worked because England wanted to believe they were a moral and benevolent power and Gandhi proved to them that their occupation was immoral and harmful.

Unlike England, Assad has no such moral beliefs; he is a brutal dictator intent on retaining power. Moreover also unlike the British in India, he has no option to leave…if his opposition wins, they will kill him (and much of his family) and perhaps subjugate his clan. He will kill as many people as needed to retain power and has no moral qualms about doing so.

There are certainly still places for passive resistance and it has worked well in South Africa and could work for groups like the Palestinian Arabs too if they chose that path…but it would not work in Syria today.

Posted by LogicalDave | Report as abusive

Another interesting option would be for Israel to join a coalition with Turkey, Jordan, and Egypt. Israel’s military strength (especially their air power) would greatly add to the coalition. While it would surely be costly for Israel to do so, the benefits could easily outweigh the costs: it would help repair their relationships with Egypt and Turkey and by helping their Syrian neighbors, they could repair that relationship and end their support for Hizbullah and Hamas. If the US were to expend political capital, helping build that coalition and perhaps supporting it with air power would be great geopolitiking and everyone (except Assad) would win.

Posted by LogicalDave | Report as abusive

These are poor defenseless people, that can easily be overtaken, killed and slaughtered. What political gain can be attained by killing defenseless, poor, struggeling masses of people..Why is it that the poorest people have to be killedn this world ! Then they become a political football…lives of people, that just have the right to live..why should even one person have to die..They are no threat to anyone..LEAVE THEM BE !

Posted by moneyboy22 | Report as abusive

Terrible article and it makes a whole bunch of sense to me. If we allow dictators to kill thier own people at any cost, there is a real problem here. I agree with BuffaloGirl too. Supporting a group of neighbouring countries going in without sending in American troops may be our best bet for solving this conflict. If American forces do go in, set a concrete deadline of a year to get this done.

Posted by greenspy | Report as abusive

Sorry, I meant terrific article, not terrible article.

Posted by greenspy | Report as abusive

Horrible article. No sustainability concerns, no long-run vision, just a preach for interventionism. Oh so you want to support the Qatari and Saudi terrorists that you already support anyway to create even more chaos in Syria. And no concerns raised about what the terrorist rebels will do to the Shia, Christian and Kurdish minorities in case they win the “revolution”. Shameful article for someone who pretends it has any idea of fair politics.

Posted by Qeds | Report as abusive

Must be terribly frustrating for the old Clinton entourage to be so close to power, and not be able to touch it. Hillary of course stumbled badly when the Egypt thing started. I mean, really, ‘the Murbaraks are nice people because Bill and I were their guests’…

Now, Assad; slimebag to be sure, but Obama seems to be reluctant to send 19 year old kids out to die. And the Europeans, pretty much useless. It’s just getting soooo hard to teach the world how to live.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

1. Is the author willing to die for the freedom of Syria? You should mention it – it’s important.

2. If you want peace in Syria, you’ll have to encourage the rebels to stop fighting, stop protesting. It will save lives.

3. The transport of dangerous contraband throughout the region is a larger goal than freeing Syria, more lives are at stake.

4. Because technology has sufficiently advanced, and all countries have access to knowledge, we are all in danger. This is the only argument that gets me willing to die for freeing Syrians, or anyone else. Until their leaders AND our leaders speak to the global problems we all face, the arguments to solve tyranny piecemeal will always come up short.

Posted by blogoleum | Report as abusive

Sure Nancy, sure. Are you going there yourself? Are you sending your kids / family members to combat, or are you expecting someone else’s kids to do the fighting?

This is an Arab problem. We cannot go fight every injustice in the world. Heck, there is so much injustice, abuse and inequality in the US!

Bombing? So what happens when Syria’s air defenses shoot down a couple of our planes? Do we send in the Marines and then the Army? And here we are, the US with boots in yet one more Muslim nation.

We cannot be the policeman, prosecutor and judge for the entire world.

Obama is doing the right thing in trying to get the entire world to work together in solving issues. Everyone needs to get involved. Everyone needs to feel the pain.

We can no longer afford in money or blood the pursuit of interventionist policies.

Posted by HereAndThere | Report as abusive

Nancy needs to go to Syria to figh Assad. What’s wrong with journalists nowadays? It seems that they have lost their journalistic minds. Advocating violence is not the journalistic way.

Posted by Fromkin | Report as abusive

Nancy needs to go to Syria to figh Assad. What’s wrong with journalists nowadays? It seems that they have lost their journalistic minds. Advocating violence is not the journalistic way.

Posted by Fromkin | Report as abusive

The world doesn’t care about Qatar and Soud Arabia. The most tyrannical regimes on the plannet, and darlings of the west. If the west calls them”our allies”, the rest of the world doesn’t want to be part and victim of this murderous alliance.

Posted by Fromkin | Report as abusive

Another Failure of our all too feeble HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH, alas !

Posted by Darnoc | Report as abusive

[...] E. Soderberg in We are letting Assad win, Reuters. Share this:TwitterFacebookEmailMorePrintTumblr LinkedInDiggRedditPinterestStumbleUponLi ke [...]