Enough Dithering–Syrians Need to be Saved from Their Own Government

On Friday, the New York Times reported, Russian President and sometimes Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin expressed fears of a civil war in Syria, claimed to be neutral between its ally the habitually-murderous Assad Family Regime and Syria’s minimally-armed and disarrayed opposition, and deputized his Foreign Ministry to allege that unnamed foreign powers slipped through a Syrian military cordon in order to massacre 108 civilians in the Houla area.  German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is nothing if not a political coward, averred that her and government and President Putin’s “have the same interests regarding stability in the whole region, even if there is the one or the other odd difference in the path to get there,” such as whether or not shipping weapons to the Assad Family Regime is deleterious to peace or whether taking any kind of action whatever might be more effective in ending the bloodshed than taking no action at all.  In other news, the Earth continued to revolve around the Sun, maintaining a trend of about 4.54 billion years.

The Liberal Ironist understands that there are reasons why action hasn’t been taken in Syria to halt the bloodshed of what is clearly a nihilistic government; it’s just that none of these reasons for hesitation were very good ones, and they have become poorer, irrelevant or untrue with time.  In the 1st place, Syria’s opposition, unlike Libya’s, didn’t coalesce and see the writing on the wall sufficiently to request foreign institution of a no-fly zone quickly.  This, plus the lack of an obvious threatened rebel stronghold such as Libya’s Benghazi (which is larger than Washington, DC) may have led to an unfortunate ambiguity about the situation.  Syria’s population is more than 3 times Libya’s and in stark contrast to Libya Syria has a serious air force, meaning that the imposition of a no-fly zone over the country would be a war in itself; relatedly, with Syria’s rebels arguably weaker and less liable to receive defections from the government and military, and with that military being more-formidable, the prospects for as easy of a success as we had in Libya with such a cursory military engagement are dimmer.  Furthermore, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev early-on expressed relative sympathy for the rebellion against Libya’s brutal Colonel Moammar Gaddafi, and consented to a mid-March UN Security Council resolution intended to prevent war crimes, which was ultimately loosely-interpreted to justify 1-sided intervention to help the rebel Reds beat the loyalist Greens in that rapidly-emerging civil war.  Being “once-bitten, twice shy” as the expression of the specious goes, then-Prime Minister Putin apparently felt confirmed in his long-standing suspicion that if you give the United States any slack, it will use it to stop your allies from ruthlessly slaughtering hundreds of thousands.  Now, the prospects for a similar resolution getting through the Security Council to intervene in any way to stop the killing hover just above nonexistent.  As in the Security Council resolution that authorized the Korean War, it may require the Russian ambassador to the UN getting locked-out of discussion during a bathroom break for any resolution to pass.

Then there’s former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s mission to Syria to institute a peace plan designed to be accepted by both sides.  The Liberal Ironist gives Annan credit for trying the legal route (which, like eating chicken soup when you have a cold, at least can’t hurt).  Annan’s mission to Syria has also been beneficial in that he has wisely used the very lack of compliance from the Assad Regime with the terms of the agreement as a means to refrain on that government’s atrocities and basic illegitimacy.  In short, the essential failure of his mission–which yours truly considered inevitable–has still had a positive effect in that it helps keep the Assad Family Regime’s crimes in the news.

That said, consider the manner in which the Assad Family Regime ran-out the clock on Annan’s peace plan: Having called for a full, 2-way cease-fire by government and opposition forces on Monday, April 9th, to go into effect on Thursday, April 12th, the Assad Family Regime soon after demanded that the rather ill-equipped rebels disarm 1st, completely.  (The agreement was specifically supposed to provide for the Regime to withdraw its military forces from contested cities, so that international aid groups and observers could enter those cities and provide relief services.)  Then it let the deadline for the cease-fire run out and, having not observed compliance on the part of the understandably-skeptical rebels, simple kept up its campaign of suppression, entirely unabated.  The Assad Regime has made no effort to observe such a cease-fire since that time.  The government had indicated its support for Annan’s proposal early-on, thereafter leveling its special conditions on the rebels only as the deadline approached.  This indicates the Assad Regime only intended to benefit from an unconditional surrender of rebels who had become a real threat, or to stall-out any kind of foreign intervention for as long as possible.

Rami G. Khouri, writing for the Daily Star, a Lebanese newspaper, had an interesting intricate analysis of the moving parts Kofi Annan likely sees in trying to engineer a peace in Syria that has both internal and external institutional supports.  It is eye-opening to hear-out an explanation of how many political interests and benefactors would have to commit to a solution for it to be sustainable.  For example, agreement on certain political principles between the mutually-mistrusting United States and Russia is necessary for them to act as guarantors for a Syrian peace agreement, but other parties such as the People’s Republic of China, the European Union, Turkey and Qatar must probably be involved–but Saudi Arabia and Iran may be too politically-provocative to achieve much there.

The analysis leads me to the confirmation (aided, no doubt, by the fact that time is clearly running out for any agreement between the Regime and the rebels before a shooting war for territory really begins) of my doubts that anythin positive in Syria will happen without foreign intervention there.  As both the misgivings and the plausible-alternative policies begin to recede from view, we are left with a civilian death toll of over 9,000 and rapidly climbing since last-March.  Indeed, almost 2 weeks ago now, mercenary thugs hired by the Assad Family Regime apparently murdered 108 civilians in Houla, a town northwest of the northern city of Homs, most of them women and children, mostly execution-style.  As is characteristic of civil wars, exactly who performed the killings and why remains ambiguous.  But exactly what happens in these episodes is ambiguous for the same reason it can happen in the 1st place: The government either no longer retains the capacity to police the population, or else it lacks the legitimacy to police the population.  As we learned (or at least were reminded) in 2011, political illegitimacy can be as profound of a problem for government as material incapacity.  The Liberal Ironist can hardly think of a better idiomatic statement of the Assad Family Regime’s incapacity to govern Syria than its excreble investigation into the massacre in Houla.  The Syrian government “found” that rebel militia fighters inexplicably slipped past a Syrian military cordon around the area, shelled Houla with heavy weapons they haven’t ever used in a battle with the Syrian Army, and executed scores of women and children along with the men in order to  drum-up a pretext for the United Nations to invade Syria and violate its sovereignty!  In fairness, this is no worse an insult to our intelligence than Assad’s–or Gaddafi’s–grim prognostications of a civil war which they could end within hours simply by relinquishing a despotic grip on their countries.

Maybe no new UN Security Council resolution at all shall be forthcoming.  So be it, I say; the UN is good for a lot of things, just not supporting an urgently-needed humanitarian intervention at the moment.  But if the last lesson Russia’s past-and-present President learned is that giving in on a humanitarian intervention earns you accolades but loses you a minor ally, why not give him an object-lesson that holding-out on a brokered cease-fire between government and opposition earns you contempt and loses you a major ally?  There are ways to do this; a toolkit approach could work.  The Turkish government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has proposed a ground invasion into northern Syria to create a safe zone for the rebels; a no-fly zone could be established over this area, at least, with US, European, and some Arab air support as during the Libyan intervention.  We could arm the rebels; what point is there in declining to do this when Assad and Russia’s Foreign Ministry accuse us of doing this already?  Paranoid and isolationist states invite indifference into interventions if they issue charges that they’re already happening at all times.

President Obama was able to wait for the pieces to fall into place–just barely–in Libya.  With Syria the legitimate investigative and peacekeeping functions of the UN have failed because some of the veto-players in that organization are nakedly ill-intentioned.  It’s simple; let’s ignore them.  As Russia demonstrated the last time Vladimir Putin was its President–during the South Ossetian War in Georgia in 2008–a world power can frustrate the objectives of a weak state rather easily, particularly if the latter rules over people who want nothing to do with it.  If due process at the UN episodically serves the interests of the defenders of politicide, then we should learn to do end-runs around it until it removes the incentive to use the organization that way.  Let Turkey invade the north; let us give food, medicine, and more-dangerous things to the rebels.  If it comes to that, I’m pretty confident our current-generation fighters can handle dogfights with the Cold War relics Syria flies.  Our cognitive biases, not our judgment, lead us to focus on the (admittedly considerable) costs associated with such an intervention; if the good fight didn’t require an investment, no one would have to call it that.  We recognize the moral urgency of the situation in Syria; the only question the Liberal Ironist has is if any of the principal heads of state can recognize, as David Cameron, Nicholas Sarkozy, Barack Obama did in Libya last year, that we can create a strategic opportunity there as well.

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