The Syrian protesters' cry for help

Arab nations and the West are closer to acting against the Assad regime – perhaps even militarily – to end the slaughter of pro-democracy protesters. The consequences of inaction are becoming worse than action.

Pro-government Syrian police faces protesters during demonstrations against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the Damascus suburb of Douma Dec. 30.

One year on, the Arab Spring has liberated three countries – Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt – although they are only in North Africa. Now a pivotal nation in the Middle East, Syria, could be next – depending on the conscience of the world.

The almost-daily killings of Syrian protesters by the Assad regime is finally forcing serious diplomatic action. In coming days, both the West and other Arab states will need to respond to the worldwide revulsion over televised videos of Syrians being slaughtered simply for demanding freedom.

Two pieces are already in place. A key player, Turkey, has turned on its onetime ally next door after thousands of protesters were killed. And international economic sanctions are biting the regime, although they don’t seem to be making much of a difference in Assad’s killing machine.

Last week, the 22-nation Arab League sent about 70 observers to Syria to try to curb the massacres, simply by their presence in major cities. Their efforts are too little and highly suspect, especially as they are led by a military general from Sudan held responsible for killings in Darfur.

And the Arab League’s advisory body, the Arab Parliament, insisted Sunday that the observers leave. President Bashar al-Assad is violating a pact with the league by, for example, not allowing journalists into Syria. And wherever the observers are present, the regime simply hides its tanks and relies on snipers to kill opponents.

All this is leading the White House to seriously weigh international options for humanitarian aid and a safety zone for opposition Syrians, much like the use of military force in Libya. “If the Syrian regime continues to resist and disregard Arab League efforts, the international community will consider other means to protect Syrian civilians,” a State Department spokesman said Dec. 27.

That effort will be helped by a unity pact signed in Cairo last Friday between Syria’s two main opposition groups. The agreement promises a democratic Syria and asks for the international community to protect the protesting civilians.

Both the West and Arab leaders know that the regime’s days are numbered. Last Friday, an estimated half-million Syrians were out in protest, the largest demonstrations in months. Dozens were killed by the regime.

If Arab leaders would now ask the United Nations to approve a NATO-led no-fly zone over portions of Syria, then the world could finally see a Libyan-style liberation.

The big difference, however, is that regime change in Syria would affect the interests of Iran and Israel, and possibly cause a refugee crisis. The unknown consequences of a power vacuum in Syria have put a damper so far on the West’s humanitarian impulse to intervene.

The difficult task of finding a balance between saving lives and avoiding the unknown in the Middle East has now tipped toward saving lives. Syrians and most Arabs are ready to act. Will the West and the UN help them?

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