You’ve got to hand it to Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad: He’s a lot dumber than he looks. He was given an undeserved reprieve a week ago when former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, at the behest of the United Nations, brokered a cease-fire agreement between the Assad Family Regime and Syria’s rebel movement, which has been active for a year and seems to be living through a slower-motion version of the way a massacre could have unfolded in Libya last year. In short order, President Assad topped what was clearly intended to be his great diplomatic salvation with a further, unreasonable demand: Syrian government troops wouldn’t withdraw from the country’s multiple besieged cities until after rebels agreed to lay down their arms.
He must be joking–rather, he must be bluffing. It’s worth mentioning that Syrian government forces had stepped-up their campaign of violence against the rebels while making this demand. In fairness (though I’ll not invoke the maxim here) it’s hardly historically-anomic for 1 side in a shooting war to press its attack in the days or even the hours leading up to an armistice; if peace negotiations will occur with territory held or relative capabilities of the military factions counting towards one’s bargaining position, trying to gain a strategic advantage over enemy forces in the last moments before a cease-fire may seem outrageous in terms of surplus loss of life–but it’s certainly a rational strategy. But this being understood, to claim that the UN-brokered cease-fire agreement is off unless Syria’s rebels put themselves at Assad’s mercy–when this is neither generally-accepted terms for a cease-fire nor in keeping with the UN-brokered cease-fire plan actually struck–is an insult to the intelligence of the mediators of this cease-fire at a minimum. To Syria’s incredulous rebels, it is a sign they should be fighting harder.
If you can actually believe it, this wasn’t Bashar’s biggest diplomatic provocation this week. That would have to be Monday’s cross-border incursion into Turkey–in order to kill fleeing refugees. Yes, you heard that correctly: Syria’s military forces will not respect the sovereign territory of its neighbors if they have a chance to shoot those civilians fleeing the violence of its restive cities in the back. As REUTERS reported yesterday, the Syrian Army responded to the rebel Free Syrian Army’s escort of a party of refugees into the Kilis Refugee Camp in Kilis Province, Turkey by firing directly into the refugee camp on Turkey’s side of the border. This led to the Turkish government’s closing of the border later in the day for security purposes, which in the short term probably plays into the Assad regime’s plans to…well, kill a lot of people.
This escalation of hostilities seems to have been met with shock; maybe we have become desensitized to the irony of governments that murder thousands of their own civilians out of convenience making a plea for the inviolability of their own sovereign territory as a matter of principle. If the concept of a government’s sovereign territory isn’t an extension of the concept of the personal integrity of its citizens or subjects, what is the point of having such a concept? Rather than being a sacred trust, such sovereignty would be little-better (and in some cases, just as contingent) as gang territory. If a government is so operationally-unconstrained that it will murder the people it is responsible for wholesale, what cause other than fear of the immediate consequences could possibly restrain it from violating its neighbors’ territory out of the same brute calculation?
Russia and China, both seemingly congenital human rights violators among nations but also by history and strategic necessity among the 5 Permanent Members of the UN Security Council, have previously used their veto power to prevent any UN Resolutions of substance being issued on the Syria question. Both Russia and China pressed for mediated talks between Assad and the rebels, but have interpreted such mediation in ways that were at least plausibly aimed at rapproachment between both sides. Russia hasn’t publicly taken a position on Assad’s last-minute demands towards the rebels, and China so far has done little more than issue a plea yesterday for both the Assad Regime and the rebel uprising to honor the cease-fire which was set to start then.
Since the Assad Regime has continued its attacks on the rebels in northern cities today, and Annan’s cease-fire was intended to go into effect yesterday, the cease-fire appears to be off.
Where do we go from here? It would be folly to think the governments of Russia and China will suddenly want to make penance for their support for Assad when this has never prevented them from pursuing their interests with murder-prone governments such as Slobodan Milosevic’s Yugoslavia or Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s Sudan. What we’ve seen in recent weeks is just how little the President’s “reset” of relations with Russia and China has profited us. The current Assad patriarch has revealed himself to be no less-abashed a mass murderer than his father, and Russia and China choose to define the festering civil war in Syria entirely as a zero-sum game between them and us for influence in the Middle East. That is an interpretation, not an insight.
Turkey’s Erdogan government, through its diplomatic corps, has chosen to darkly imply that it is once again considering military action against Syria to push its armed forces back from its border. We’ve allowed Syria’s rebels to hang by a thread for months without issuing anything so much as the term “unacceptable” that foreshadowed last year’s intervention in Libya. Turkey is a longtime ally in good standing; it has accepted tens of thousands of refugees from collective punishment in Syria and for its humanitarianism it now finds itself vulnerable to cross-border incursions like those Sudanese militia made into Chad to hunt-down refugees fleeing the violence in Darfur. Why let perpetrators of genocides and politicides hide behind the pretenses of sovereignty when they regularly create–and pursue–streams of humanity issuing from their own killing fields? I say we should shore-up our commitments to our allies (such as Turkey) and to our values (such as the protection of civilians) rather than repeat a deference to nonplussed and unscrupulous world powers.
The Erdogan government has also previously entertained the idea of occupying a small area of northern Syria as a rebel safe zone. I think that would be a good start. If Syria regards that as an offensive action now, it should have accepted the cease-fire proposal after it became clear its violence was driving tens of thousands of refugees over its borders. If Russia and China find a resultant hastening collapse of the Assad Regime objectionable, they should have put this morally-vacant dictatorial protege on a shorter diplomatic leash. A strong intervention now on the side of the rebels would send a message that we can play their Realpolitik game, too.