Today marks one year of the uprising in Syria, which has now taken nearly 10,000 lives according to the opposition. The response of the international community has been more or less a complete failure so far — failure to end the violence, to resolve the political stalemate, to help civilian victims, or even to establish enough unity among the great powers to chart a course forward.
In recent months, the western powers have seriously misplayed their hand and set back the effort to find a solution. They pushed a resolution at the UN Security Council that called for President Assad’s ouster from power, bringing a Russian and Chinese veto (which Hillary Clinton then called “despicable”). That only emboldened Assad to ramp up more violence against his armed and unarmed opponents, shelling the city of Homs for a month. Russia was pushed into actually supporting Assad more closely, and a new irritant in U.S.-Chinese relations was created. The overwhelming support for a similar resolution in the UN General Assembly highlighted the isolation of the Russia-China-Iran-Syria group, but did nothing to help the Syrian people. In recent days the Syrian government has blasted the opposition out of Idlib in the north, and has turned to blasting Dara’a in the south, where the uprising began a year ago.
The United States and its friends — led by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states — have been considering arming the Syrian opposition, and there have been calls for a Libya-style military intervention by the west. Trouble is, none of these options are at all practical. Arming up Syria’s fragmented, sectarian, underpowered armed opposition would only lead to a long bloody civil war that probably would not dislodge the Assad regime in the end.
While Clinton and other western officials have ramped up their rhetoric and pledged their undying support for the Syrian people in their just cause, etc., the only effect has been to make the Syrian opposition think, wrongly, that someone is going to give them arms or airstrikes to hold off their government’s brutality. When it doesn’t happen, they rightly feel a bit betrayed.
The underlying problem here is a familiar one for the international community when dealing with governments that do wrong — do you work to change the government (Iraq, Libya, Cuba) or do you work to change its behavior (North Korea, Burma). Western powers have been repeating lately that Assad must go, but as long as Russia backs him and China opposes forced regime change, the west has no way to make that happen. A strategy to try to force or induce Assad to change his behavior, on the other hand, has a chance to unite the international community and might begin moving things in the desired direction. Even Russia says that Syria’s government must stop using violence on its people.
The right path forward, the only path, is through the United Nations. The UN has been working to put very modest measures in place, such as humanitarian aid and monitoring missions. A humanitarian assessment mission is to visit this weekend. Meanwhile the most respected, experienced diplomat in the world, former secretary-general Kofi Annan, has been negotiating with all sides to try to find a solution. He is to brief the Security Council tomorrow.
Ban Ki Moon on Tuesday said, “First end the violence, all the violence; second engage in an inclusive dialogue for a political solution; and thirdly, establish an access for humanitarian assistance.” He asked the Security Council to pass a resolution that (quoting Colum Lynch’s summary) “would call on Syrians to immediately halt the violence there, permit the delivery of humanitarian assistance to besieged communities, and endorse the efforts of his envoy, Kofi Annan, to start political talks between the government and opposition over the future of the country.” These are the right steps. Indeed, what else do we have that could work?
The key first step, as in quite a few other violent political conflicts around the world, is to achieve a cease-fire. The western powers should focus on getting Russia and China to press Assad to agree to one. Since all the great powers agree on the need for a cease-fire, especially by the Syrian government which is doing most of the firing, it is perfectly feasible to get the international community back together, pass a resolution aimed at behavior change rather than regime change, and get the United Nations united. Tomorrow’s Security Council meeting to hear Annan’s report is a chance to move forward.
As 200 international aid and human rights groups from 27 countries said in a statement today demanding a Security Council resolution against Syria’s violence, torture, and detention, “the international community must unite and help Syrians bring an end to the horror.” Yes we can!