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Opinion

To help Syria, apply a mix of 'soft' and 'hard' power

Sanctions and isolation of the Assad regime are simply allowing massacres to continue in Syria. Yet the world resists an all-out military intervention in Syria. A third option is to apply a mix of 'hard' and 'soft' power to relieve the suffering there.

By Benedetta Berti / March 15, 2012

In this March 9 citizen journalism image provided by the Homs City Union of The Syrian Revolution, smoke rises from a building that was shelled by the Syrian army, at Jeb al-Jandali neighborhood in Homs province. Op-ed contributor Benedetta Berti urges the international community to use a combination of 'hard' and 'soft' power to help a struggling Syria. (Note: The Associated Press is unable to independently verify the authenticity, content, location, or date of this photo.)

Homs City Union of The Syrian Revolution/AP

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The debate over the role of the international community in Syria is disheartening, dominated by skepticism about the ability of outsiders to have a positive impact.

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This stems from the fact that two main options – continuing to refrain from direct intervention or waging a fully fledged military campaign – both have serious drawbacks. Is there a middle way?

On the one hand, the prospects of a full-scale military intervention to aid the Syrian opposition seem unrealistic as well as risky. In these times of ongoing economic crisis and public reluctance to embrace “peacekeeping” missions, the appetite for intervention is low, at best.

What’s more, the lack of UN Security Council authorization for a military campaign erodes the international legitimacy of such a step. A divided Security Council also restricts the possibility of framing a campaign in the context of the UN “responsibility to protect” (R2P) doctrine to protect citizens from mass atrocities. The doctrine was invoked a year ago to back NATO’s involvement in Libya.

Other risks include backing an internally divided opposition that the international community neither knows well nor fully understands. One has only to review the growing number of reports of human rights violations by the new regime in Libya to realize the importance of choosing one’s allies carefully.

This is especially true in the context of the existing sectarian divisions in Syria. The largely Sunni opposition forces may well retaliate against the regime by targeting the ruling and minority Alawite community, especially if the country descends further into strife.

Finally, military intervention in a deeply divided country is a complicated business, and could easily bog down.

On the other hand, continuing the current mix of harsh rhetoric and weak sanctions is also dangerous and ineffective. Right now, the Syrian rebels are not strong enough to oust Bashar al-Assad and topple his regime. At the same time, the regime does not have the capacity to completely crush the opposition. So the country will continue to experience intense internal conflict and civilian suffering, given that the chances of the parties reaching a negotiated agreement are slim.

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