Last Thursday, 72 people were killed in al-Bayda while on Saturday a further 77 are reported to have been killed in Baniyas. Many of them are women and children. Most of the bodies were found burned or mutilated.
The so-called “red line” with Syria was crossed a long time ago. Yet, states have remained stagnant by either indifference or fear of involvement in the situation, as the country has descended into chaos and more than 70,000 lives have been lost amid the fighting between government and rebel forces. Meanwhile, the American media gives 24/7 coverage to the bombing in Boston or other domestic stories, while scores of innocent lives are taken in Syria every day and go seemingly unnoticed by the outside world.
A major cause of the failure to intervene has been the attitude of the UN Security Council. Often at odds over decisions of international discipline, China and Russia have prevented the U.S. from pushing through any meaningful action against the Assad regime in Syria. Of course, “intervention” has assumed a rather dirty reputation, particularly so soon after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. China and Russia predictably oppose any further American interference in foreign conflicts, especially in the Middle East, and particularly when the result of the Iraq war proves that such missions are not always prudent.
These states may also have (incorrectly) surmised that the conflict in Syria is one that has no bearing on their individual interests. In the recent cases of Iraq and Libya, the guise of humanitarian intervention was useful in removing longtime dictators and threats to global peace. The U.S. certainly had a torrid history with both Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi. Yet, the U.S. and others managed largely to stay out of the troubles in Egypt where the president was a longtime ally of the American government. And with cases such as Rwanda, Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo, there simply weren’t enough benefits to outweigh the costs of involvement.
From a humanitarian perspective alone, intervention in Syria is a moral imperative. Yet, if that argument doesn’t satisfy (as is the case with many), there are political justifications also.
Syria’s conflict will not remain merely Syria’s problem. In the two years that the fighting has continued, hundreds of thousands of refugees have flooded across the borders into Jordan and Turkey, both key regional allies of the United States. In Jordan alone, around half a million refugees are placing a major strain on the country’s resources, as well as engendering tensions with Jordanians. In a country of only six million, the proportion of incoming Syrians is equivalent to the population of Texas to the rest of the U.S.
The United States should be offering greater support, particularly to Jordan, an ally it can’t afford to lose, and one it certainly does not want to see descend into its own state of political unrest.
Furthermore, the risk of chemical weapons being used by the Syrian government, or indeed falling into other dangerous hands, makes intervention all but imperative. Lessons should have been learned from Saddam Hussein’s use of mustard gas against Iraqi Kurds in 1988, which was also thought to include the nerve agents sarin and VX. It is believed that Syria possesses all three of these, while some reports from rebel forces claim that they have already been deployed.
A surprise Israeli air strike in Syria this week highlighted another threat: the transfer of Syrian weapons to other militant groups. Israel claims it targeted a convoy of Iranian missiles travelling through Syria to the Lebanese organization Hezbollah. Without doubt, Israel was taking advantage of the Syrian regime’s inability to respond to such a move at this time, but the transfer of such weapons underscores that an unstable Syria could prove very troublesome for Middle Eastern stability.
All this is not to suggest the Assad regime should simply be toppled. History tells us that when dictators are removed, the resulting power vacuum usually causes massive social unrest and sectarian violence. Besides, there is still little indication that Syria has a viable and unified opposition to assume control should Assad be removed.
That considered, this week’s agreement between the U.S. and Russia may be the least bad option: calling for a transition government that involves members of both Assad’s regime and the opposition. This may be a highly unrealistic prospect, but is likely a better way forward than the alternatives. Besides, it brings together the U.S. and Russia, which means something might finally get done within the Security Council.
Action on Syria is long overdue, but has understandably had to be treated with a degree of sensitivity. The U.S. can ill-afford to get involved in another conflict, while another failed state in the Middle East, complete with sectarian chaos, is far from desired. There is no easy way out of this situation, but certainly that should not have stopped action being taken much sooner, and one can only hope that there is a resolution to this horrific situation soon.