Over the past 19 months, the people of Syria have risen up against a regime that for over four decades has denied its people basic rights and freedoms. In response to demonstrations and protests, the regime of Bashar al-Assad has reacted with overwhelming force, giving way to an estimated 30,000 victims to date. International observers have noted the following:
- The United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria reports that Syrian state agents have violated various provisions of international humanitarian law, failed to distinguish between the civilian population and combatants, and failed to exercise proportionality with respect to civilian losses.
- Doctors without Borders states that the Syrian government continues to deny basic medical care to injured civilians.
- Reuters and the AFP report systematic acts of violence against civilians at the hands of the Assad regime.
- The United Nations-appointed Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic describes “…crimes against humanity of murder, torture, rape or other forms of sexual violence of comparable gravity…” at the hands of the State.
The international community has negotiated with and given Assad time, but diplomacy has failed. A military intervention currently is the only way forward to peace. The international community cannot be deterred by Russia’s objection, one that is hypocritical in light of Russia’s shipments of military equipment to Syria. Under the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, the international community must act on its moral and legal responsibility to intervene when a people suffers from egregious acts of violence at the hands of their State. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights further requires States to ensure the protection of the right to life, prohibitions on torture, and freedom of thought and expression, all of which have been violated by the Syrian regime.
Syrian Refugee Crisis
In 1999, the world stood at a similar crossroads. A humanitarian crisis engulfed the Balkan Peninsula, but United Nations collective security action on Kosovo was impeded by a Russian veto. Despite this veto, NATO, based on a moral duty transcending Russian interests in the Balkans, undertook military action. Most observers now agree that NATO’s actions were legitimate and justified under international law.
The time is now for military action in Syria, with or without Russia’s consent. The international community, led by NATO or a similar coalition, must make a clear ultimatum to Assad: he may step down now in exchange for immunity or he will be prosecuted for crimes against humanity after a military campaign including air strikes to neutralize Syrian intelligence and strategic bases, the establishment of a no-fly zone, safe havens in Syria and at the Turkish border and material support to the opposition.
The failure to act cannot be justified by citing terrorists within the ranks of the Syrian opposition. While it is true that in recent months, some obscure Salafi Islamic groups have claimed responsibility for suicide bombings in Syria, it is entirely possible that such groups, unknown before the Syrian uprising, may be creations of the Syrian State. Upon defecting, former Syria Prime Minister Riad Hijab announced that one suicide bombing against a Syrian target was engineered by the regime against an empty target where not one regime soldier was harmed. It should not be surprising if the Islamic Al-Nusra Front, which recently claimed responsibility for an Aleppo air defense base attack where over one hundred captured opposition members were imprisoned, is similarly under the control of the regime, designed to bolster Russian claims of an “Islamic uprising.”
Yet even if groups such as the Al-Nusra Front are bona fide members of the opposition, their recent emergence in the conflict clearly shows that the failure of the international community to act has left a power vacuum that terrorist groups are eager to fill. Given concerns as to what the opposition is genuinely comprised of, the international community can condition its military support on commitments by opposition leaders to guarantee the basic rights of minorities and all religious groups, based on the Universal Declaration for Human Rights or on the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam. Military and political advisers of NATO or a similar coalition can work with opposition members in establishing a power-sharing model under a new Constitution where Sunni Muslims as well as Alawi and other minorities share power and guarantee the respect for the rule of law.
The road forward will be filled with challenges, but no case can be made for the current status quo of inaction. The ongoing massacre of Syrian civilians gives special urgency to the international community to act on its responsibility to protect.
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