The horror in Syria, the cold realities of international action
Syria's civil war is horrific, with most of the crimes committed by the Assad regime and its supporters. This may lead to moral clarity, but not necessarily to international military action.
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This is not to say that the rebellion's grievances aren't real, or that the majority of its supporters want precisely what they say they do: To get out from under the yoke of Assad's Baath regime and to live in a more democratic country. With the events of the past year there, it's impossible to fault any Syrian who wants to take up arms against Assad. But the grievances of decades, and the fresh set of wounds inflicted on the population, create the conditions for the cycle of sectarian murder and counter-murder that extracted such horrific costs on Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s, and in Iraq after the US-led invasion in 2003.Skip to next paragraph
Dan Murphy is a staff writer for the Monitor's international desk, focused on the Middle East. Murphy, who has reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, and more than a dozen other countries, writes and edits Backchannels. The focus? War and international relations, leaning toward things Middle East.
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In Iraq, hundreds of thousands were tortured and murdered in communal violence that 100,000 US troops were largely powerless to stop. Foreign boots in Syria would be no more a guarantee of peace.
The people framed as the murderers today could be precisely the ones in desperate need of international protection tomorrow. And massacres after such an intervention will be partly on the hands of those foreign powers who got involved, no matter how well-intentioned. US officials and their counterparts in Europe are aware of these risks, as they are of political realities. Is it better to take action and risk being on the hook for future crimes that, after all, may not occur? Or is the safe play to look on aghast, let diplomacy and sanctions grind on, and hope a breakthrough – somehow, anyhow – will be found?
In Libya, the UN Security Council authorized NATO action. While from almost the moment the bombs started falling the US, France, the UK, and others clearly exceeded their mandate only to protect civilians from imminent harm, UN cover was the key to action. That was cover that Russia was willing to grant that time, choosing not to exercise its veto in the crucial vote. Later, the country was furious at how the UN mandate was used, and vowed there would be no repeats.
So far, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been unmoved by the killing. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said today his country opposed new Security Council resolutions on Syria and "it is essential to give the plan of Kofi Annan time to work." Time? The plan has failed, and a suggestion that there is going to be some magical about-face by Assad if only more time is given flies in the face of every available data point.
The news from Syria, the amateur video of fathers and mothers grieving over their children, and the stills of people clearly tortured to their deaths are almost too much to bear. The demands that "something must be done" are humane, natural, a healthy reaction to the horror. But determining what that "something" is, and doing it well, is the tough, cold work that policy makers have in front of them.
I don't envy them.
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