The Syrian conundrum

Is there nothing the international community can do to stop the bloodshed in Syria?

UN observer at scene of Houla massacre 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
UN observer at scene of Houla massacre 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Is there nothing the international community can do to stop the bloodshed in Syria? On Friday, UN monitors described the smell of burnt flesh and scattered body parts after a visit to the deserted Syrian hamlet of Mazraat al-Qubeir, where a reported 78 people were massacred last week. And on Saturday, 17 people, including 10 women, were killed by shelling in Deraa, the town that sparked the Syrian uprising. Over the past 15 months since the civil unrest began over 13,000 people have been killed – many of whom were women and children – and untold thousands have been imprisoned. Over the weekend alone an estimate 100 were killed.
Yet, the world’s powers seem helpless to work together to stop the violence.
Vice Premier Shaul Mofaz (Kadima) articulated the moral outrage felt by many when he accused Bashar Assad’s regime of committing a “crime against humanity” and noted that “the silence of world powers is contrary to all human logic.”
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu weighed in too, strongly denouncing the atrocities being committed in Syria.
It is frustrating – as Jews and as human beings – to stand by while thousands of innocent civilians are being massacred just a few hundred kilometers to our north. And this frustration is compacted by the knowledge that – in this case at least – our political autonomy does not help us to reach out to the embattled Syrian people. In some respects, Syrian animosity toward Zionism actually transforms the Jewish people’s statehood into an obstacle – not a vehicle – to extending humanitarian aid. Perhaps some Syrians will take up Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon’s offer of Israeli aid for those who take refuge in Jordan and other countries with ties to Israel.
But even the international community’s ability to stop the bloodshed in Syria is limited. The Syrian opposition is a patchwork of diverse groups. Some are democrats and nationalists. But others are Islamists, including groups connected to al-Qaida. Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood are providing aid to these Islamist elements. Meanwhile, Iran and Russia are providing Assad’s regime with weapons and support.
There is an understandable desire to strengthen the more “moderate” elements in the opposition to counterbalance the influence of Iran and Russia on one hand and Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood on the other.
But even if doing so is possible, arming the “moderates” might do nothing more than escalate the bloodshed.
Toppling Assad’s regime – even if it were possible – could lead to wholesale massacre of the Alawite minority, which is fighting for its life to keep Assad in power. And bringing to bear the necessary firepower to truly endanger the Assad regime would embroil the US and other Western countries in another protracted conflict similar to ones fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Under the circumstances, a negotiated settlement remains the best outcome for both Western interests and the Syrian people.
On the other hand diplomacy is not working. Even the indefatigable Kofi Annan has all but admitted after nearly two months of futile attempts to bring about a cease-fire that his six-point plan for peace in Syria has failed. As long as Assad feels sufficiently secure in his internal support from ethnic and sectarian minorities (Alawites and Druse) and external backing from Russian and Iran (and to a certain extent China), he will have no incentive to stop using violence and murder to cow the Syrian opposition into submission.
Therefore, ever more stringent economic sanctions against Damascus – that would indirectly hurt Russia, Iran and China – seem to be the only option. In addition to the bans already imposed by western countries on imports of Syrian oil and on new foreign investment in Syria, and the freezing of Assad’s and his cronies’ assets, additional steps need to be taken to cut off Syria altogether from international capital flows.
There are no easy solutions in Syria. But doing nothing at all is not an option.