The essentially Stalinist monarchy of Bashar al-Assad and his late father, Hafez, in Syria must rank among the most brutal regimes. Compelling evidence now indicates that the son was recently responsible for murdering 100-150 fellow citizens with chemical gas in multiple incidents, delivered in some instances by aircraft.
Since 2011, the civil war has also added more than 93,000 deaths and an estimated 1.6 million refugees to the ongoing nightmares of the Syrian people. Thousands of civilians now appear to be perishing daily.
What should the responsible international community do?
Former president Bill Clinton likens Syria to the situations of Bosnia/Kosovo with Serbia in the 1990s, even saying that his successor could end up looking like a “total wuss” if he doesn’t intervene. Haunting memories of Clinton’s own immobility during most of the almost unending months of the Rwandan genocide in 1994 are probably also motivating his ’do something’ rhetoric.
U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent decision to begin supplying selected rebels with small arms and ammunition has been widely criticized as too little, too late. The president himself is reported to have admitted that it will change nothing, but perhaps buy some time.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s decidedly dovish national security advisor, described Obama’s decision as “propaganda”, reasonably asking why a ‘red line’ was crossed only after gas was used when almost 100,000 have been killed mostly by other violent means.
The Toronto historian, J.L Granatstein, correctly stresses that the international community should give serious thought to what will result if Assad and his allies, including the inhuman Shia mullahs in Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon (whose ultimate target is Israel) and Vladimir Putin in Russia, ultimately prevail in Syria. The first to be slaughtered would probably be remaining dissenters — primarily Sunnis — in Syria not able to join the seas of refugees already in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s principal foreign policy goals appear to be propping up tyrants and combating universal values wherever he can. His only criticism of Assad, for example, was that he did not enact enough reforms to avoid a widespread revolt. The peace conference Putin claims to want held on Syria will certainly not occur in Geneva or anywhere as long as the Assad forces are ascendant as is their current status. Overall, Putin wants from Assad a strategic base for Russia on the Mediterranean.
In the short term, therefore, the U.S, NATO and/or other governments should institute a general or limited no-fly zone over Syria. It would protect some civilian lives from bombs and possibly more aircraft-delivered gas at least in areas held by rebels. It could also restore balance in the civil war, thereby improving the prospects for holding a meaningful peace conference soon.
Following the experience in Libya, in which a no-fly zone almost immediately morphed into bombing to effect regime change, Russia and China would no doubt block any Security Council resolution to authorize another one, so it would unfortunately have to be done without UN sponsorship.
The recent G8 meeting in northern Ireland — apart from approving more much-needed humanitarian aid for Syrians — offered no real hope to the Syrian people.
Syrian-Canadian Louay Sakka of the Syrian Support Group, who is assisting the Free Syrian Army led by the secular Brigadier General Salim Idriss, notes, “The Russian government is very serious about winning the war. The U.S. and other countries want to talk and to have meetings in Geneva…”
More of the same neglect by governments that claim to be friends of the Syrian people will lead only to further chaos across the country and Middle East and growing violence by religious extremists in Damascus and elsewhere. The time to ‘do something’ is now.
David Kilgour is co-chair of the Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran and a director of the Washington-based Council for a Community of Democracies (CCD). He is a former MP for both the Conservative and Liberal Parties in the south-east region of Edmonton and has also served as the Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa, Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific and Deputy Speaker of the House.