The Price of Apathy: Why the World Must Intervene in Syria

Kofi Annan has restarted the UN's attempt to end the violence in Syria by calling for the Assad regime to relinquish some of its power and form a 'unity government' with the opposition.

Kofi Annan has restarted the UN's attempt to end the violence in Syria by calling for the Assad regime to relinquish some of its power and form a 'unity government' with the opposition.

The initiative is well meaning but harmful. The regime has shown it will make no voluntary concessions. Further, a government that maintains the Ba'ath party power structure is unacceptable for the many fighting--and the many more marching peacefully--for freedom in Syria.

Recent aggression toward Turkey and continued atrocities toward its citizens lay plain the Syrian regime's confidence that it can exercise excessive force without consequence. The international community therefore has a moral obligation to help foster a viable resistance by establishing safe zones from which opposition forces can train, re-arm and seek refuge and medial assistance. Continued inaction by Annan and others only delays this necessity, making future action bloodier and costlier.

Last month in a village near the Syrian town of Houla, armed men murdered 108 men, women and children, a UN report into the incident concluded, in a village-wide massacres that have become commonplace. In a June 3 speech before the People's Assembly, Assad blamed 'terrorists' for the massacre despite verified witness accounts that say government militias committed the crimes.

Assad's duplicity is old news by now. He oversees horrific crackdowns while blaming those he targets for the bloodshed. The world reaction to this impunity has also become shamefully predictable. Though many have condemned the incident, none support decisive action. The US expressed its "extreme disapproval" and expelled Syria's ambassador to Washington. Otherwise its failed policies of diplomatic and economic pressure coupled with promised non-military aid to the opposition remains unchanged. But former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, whose Syria peace plan failed to curtail the violence, is leading the chorus charging that this massacre is the "tipping point" at which Bashar al-Assad's continued atrocities must no longer be tolerated.

Governments that call themselves 'Friends of Syrian People' must now embrace this moment and shift their policies to prepare for intervention or at least actively support the opposition with direct military assistance. Only then can the US and its allies help stop future Houlas from happening, minimise casualties, and, in the process, strengthen their own security.

Assad is not giving up. The disillusioned dictator believes he is winning as his crackdowns escalate without repercussion. Nor will the armed opposition retreat. They cannot, out of principle but also because laying down arms would mean certain death.

Therefore, a continuation of the conflict is inevitable, and only more decisive action by the international community can hasten an end to the violence. As Assad's regime becomes more frantic in its scramble to remain in power, its measures become more desperate. Already the regime has shown its disregard for civilian life by murdering more than 15,000 citizens. Massacres like the one in Houla will increase in scale and severity, and, eventually the UN's mandated Responsibility to Protect will be too egregious to ignore--it already meets the criteria to invoke this obligation. By intervening now rather than later, the international community still has the opportunity to coordinate with a cooperative armed resistance that has yet to be radicalised by the long-term horror of a protracted conflict or by external forces that are seeking to co-opt it.

Dialogue that would permit continued Assad rule is not the answer. Annan's first failed plan showed that Assad, emboldened by his impunity, has no interest in genuine negotiation. A deal like the one brokered in Yemen that would remove Assad but leave the Ba'ath Party structure in place would also fail to satisfy the demands of citizens and ultimately prolong the conflict.

Instead, the US and others should join in the work in cooperation with Qatar and Saudi Arabia, to provide arms to Syrian rebels via Turkey. Crucially, NATO allies must help establish safe zones in neighbouring Lebanon, Syria and Jordan as well as create buffer zones inside the country, where Syrian army defectors could find safety, and from which the opposition could train, organize and effectively challenge Assad's loyalist military. En masse defections, like those that brought down Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia, will only occur when soldiers see a viable alternative and defections like the one this week by Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlas will remain isolated. So too must the country's business elite realise that the best way to secure their fortunes is to support democratisation.

World leaders remain reluctant to help Syria in any substantive way, despite overwhelming evidence of the moral imperative to do so. They claim that the opposition leadership is weak and divided. Indeed, building a coalition from scratch in a country that banned political plurality and free expression since the period of the French Mandate is challenging but has progressed remarkably and remains a work-in-progress. The Syrian National Council, founded in September 2011, now includes approximately 80 percent of the opposition, with Syrians both inside the country and in the diaspora. It has Sunnis, minorities, Arab nationalists, secularists and prominent intellectuals. Analysts who portray the council as divided and weak cite those who have either left the organisation or chosen not to join it. Yet no one who understands the varied interests of the hundreds of political, ethnic, cultural and social groups in Syria believes they could seamlessly gather under one umbrella after 60 years of repression. Engaging everyone takes time. Democracy is messy and building it will be slow and difficult--but it is necessary, important work deserving of the international community's support.

The main argument against intervention is fears of Syria's complexity. The country is ethnically and politically diverse. Assad has sought to exploit the divisions among various sects in order to prop up the notion that only he can prevent civil war, all-the-while stoking the flames of one. Divisions will only become more aggravated as the conflict drags on and Assad is able to pit groups against one another in order to combat waning internal support. While all interventions are difficult, permitting the status quo will only make eventual involvement more challenging, and complexity is not a sufficient abdication of the obligation to help.

Some argue that, because Syria is smaller than Libya, it will be more difficult for anti-government forces to carve out liberated territories even with international assistance. But foreign military aid is exactly what is needed to give the Free Syrian Army the capacity to carve out safe zones along its borders. It has already exhibited the ability to do so temporarily even with its current, vast firepower imbalance vis-à-vis the Syrian military. Furthermore, even though Syrian is more populous and smaller than Libya, it is still feasible for safe zones to be established with foreign assistance. The U.S. secured a No-Fly Zone in 1992 in Kurdish Northern Iraq, a geographic location more comparable to the proposed areas in Syria.

However, no comparison properly explains the Syrian context. Generating our understanding of one conflict by looking to another in the region--usually the most recent--is misleading and short sighted. It allows leaders and analysts to force their arguments through the prisms of the prevailing wisdom, rather than engage in the difficult work of assessing such complex and unique contexts as Syria's. Conflating different conflicts is lazy and dangerous. For instance, the U.S.'s protracted involvement in Somalia, epitomized by the Battle of Mogadishu ('Black Hawk Down') debacle, led former U.S. President Bill Clinton to eschew intervention during the Rwandan genocide.

Syria's complexity also speaks to its geopolitical significance and therefore the international community's interest in solving the conflict. Countries are reluctant to get involved in Syria because of its location and relations with its neighbours. But the longer the international community waits to help Syria, the less control it will have on the impact of the conflict on these relationships. Those who believe sanctions can still bankrupt Assad from power should note that Russia and Iran remain staunch, wealthy allies. The only way these two countries' Syria policies can by appeased is by acquiescing to their unequivocal regime support. Ousting Assad and assisting a democratic transition would serve multiple strategic interests of the US and its allies, by removing a key passageway and ally from the Iran-Hezbollah axis and disempowering a long-time foe of Israel and bully of Lebanon.

South Africa's anti-Apartheid leader Bishop Desmond Tutu famously said: "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor." By not giving the Syrian people the tools they are asking for and need to bring down Assad, the international community is siding with him. Without military assistance, we will be back here again in a few days or weeks, bemoaning another massacre and complaining about another disingenuous Assad speech while Syrians continue to die at the hands of their own government.


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