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June 5, 2012 8:09 pm
The Houla massacre has whipped up a new wave of outrage at the brutality of Syria’s dictatorship. More Syrian envoys were kicked out of western capitals, more financial sanctions slapped on the regime in Damascus, and more furious calls for a political transition from Bashar al-Assad issued. So what? Mr Assad is no closer to ceding power than he was a year ago, when the rebellion against him was already raging.
Houla embodies the daily tragedy of Syria over the past 14 months while the world stumbles from one failed policy to another. Before Houla there was Baba Amr and Dera’a, to cite but a few places ravaged by regime forces. It would be unfair to say that western powers have not tried to put an end to Syria’s plight, using all diplomatic means available. The removal of Mr Assad, after all, would yield significant strategic gain by weakening Iran, Syria’s main ally.
Today the US and Europe are prevented from taking tougher international action by a world power – Russia – which itself is intervening in Syria through the sale of weapons to the regime.
The only diplomatic mechanism to which Russia has signed up is the Kofi Annan initiative, a plan that is unravelling as UN monitors sent to observe a ceasefire instead bear witness to more crimes. The grim reality is that unless Russia can be made to end its support for Mr Assad, the only way to halt a slide into full-scale civil war is to put military options on the table.
We’ve all heard the arguments against intervention and they are persuasive: no UN Security Council resolution and none of the Arab League unity that was present in the case of Libya; no united opposition; and greater strategic risk because of Iran’s support for the Assad regime.
It is true that Syria does not lend itself to an easy military solution, and such a move would hold enormous risks. But there are ways of securing both international and regional legitimacy for the creation of a Nato-protected zone in the Idlib province near the Turkish border and possibly also in Dera’a, near Jordan. There, a more disciplined rebel force could be assembled and higher-level defectors would find shelter. Only then can the serious cracks within the regime that western governments have been hoping for become possible, and only then will Mr Assad understand that he must sign up to a transition plan that ends his presidency.
Although a trickle of weapons is starting to flow to some rebel forces with money from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, these Arab states will pick and choose their clients, fragmenting a disparate rebel force further but without giving it sufficient strength to alter the balance of power.
Where can the legitimacy for a broader, more organised intervention come from? It is likely that the Gulf Co-operation Council, which groups six Arab states including Saudi Arabia, would back the creation of a protected zone. A decision by the UN General Assembly could be sought by invoking the responsibility to protect – the doctrine, developed after Rwanda’s genocide, that the international community must act if governments fail to protect their own citizens. The Henry Jackson Society, a UK think-tank, has also argued that legal authorisation from the General Assembly could be based on the “Uniting for Peace” resolution of 1950, which was used to overcome the Soviet Union’s obstruction at the Security Council in the Korean war.
Moreover, support for intervention is passionate on the ground, where Syria’s peaceful revolutionaries and the armed rebels now believe the world has abandoned them. Worse still, they fear losing ground to the more radical new elements taking advantage of the uprising. Western intelligence agencies blame al-Qaeda for bomb attacks in Damascus, which have added a dangerous new element to the conflict.
It is ludicrous to wait for the Syrian opposition overseas to unite under the banner of the Syrian National Council. Instead it is through the local co-ordinating committees of activists and the revolutionary councils in towns across the country that western powers need to advance, and justify, a more robust strategy.
A peaceful diplomatic solution to Syria undoubtedly remains the preferred way. But if it is impossible to achieve, it is not through tougher action but through inaction that Syria will face a prolonged, bloodier, and more sectarian conflict that threatens stability across the region.
The writer is the FT’s Middle East editor
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