The Houla Massacre of a week ago in several small Muslim villages near the Syrian city of Homs underscores the tragic circumstances of civilian vulnerability to the brutal violence of a criminal government. Reliable reports confirm that most of the 108 civilians who died in Houla were executed at close range in cold blood, over 50 of whom were children under the age of 10. It is no wonder that the Houla Massacre is being called ‘a tipping point’ in the global response to this latest horrifying outbreak of Syrian violence, a process that started over 15 months ago. The chilling nature of this vicious attack that refused to spare the most innocent among us, young children, does seem like a point of no return. What happened in Houla, although still contested as to details, seems established as mainly the work of the Shabiha, the notorious militia of thugs employed by Damascus to deal cruelly with opposition forces and their supposed supporters among the Syrian people. This massacre also represents a crude repudiation of UN diplomacy, especially the ceasefire 280 unarmed UN observers have been monitoring since it was put into effect on April 12th. In this regard the events in Houla reinforced the impression that the Assad regime was increasingly relying on tactics of depraved criminality and state terror to destroy the movement that has been mounted against it. Such defiance also created new pressure on the UN and the international community to do something more interventionary than bemoaning and censuring when confronted by such evil, or face being further discredited as inept and even irrelevant.
But is not the Syrian situation better treated as a ‘tragic predicament’ of contemporary world order rather than presented as a tipping point that might justify military intervention? The language of tipping point raises misleading hard power expectations that external coercive initiatives can redeem the situation? What kind of hitherto unimaginable action plan undertaken by the UN or NATO could hope to stop the violence at acceptable costs and thereby change the governing structure of Syria for the better? There has long existed an international consensus that the Syrian response to a popular uprising that started nonviolently more than a year ago should be vigorously opposed, but this awareness was coupled with a growing realization that there were no good options in the event, as has proved to be the case, that the Assad regime defies international censure and media exposure. Even those who supported the 6-Point Annan Plan in the UN acknowledged from its inception that it represented a desperate effort, which had almost no prospect of succeeding. Critics claimed that the Annan Plan was ‘accepted’ in bad faith by Assad to give Damascus breathing space while it went forward with its own plans to crush the opposition by all means at its disposal, and had no intention of reaching a political solution of the conflict. In truth, the opposition may also have been unwilling to live within the limits of the Annan approach as it meant giving up its primary goal of establishing a new governance structure for Syria.
There was a widely shared sentiment at the UN and in the world media that it was unacceptable to stand back and watch further crimes against humanity take place, inducing a mood that ‘something more must be done,’ but what? Remembering the awful failure of the world to look away while the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 or to remain passive in responding to the massacre at Srebrenica in 1995, there existed the feeling that the developments in Syria were heading toward a comparably unspeakable humanitarian catastrophe, already more than 10,000 Syrians had died, and it seems likely that worse may still occur if the Assad leadership is not removed.
Diplomacy had been arduously pursued since the outset of the turmoil in Syria: originally by Turkey, then the Arab League, and finally by Kofi Annan, the Joint Envoy of the UN Secretary General and the Arab League, each phase greeted by deceptive welcoming gestures in Damascus but clearly without any intention to abandon or even mitigate reliance on indiscriminate violence directed at the civilian population. The parties all along, including Bashar al-Assad sweet-talked international emissaries, announced their willingness to stop the killing and other abuses, and even accepted monitoring arrangements. On occasion after occasion before negotiators had even left this tormented country the two sides resumed their fierce combat as if nothing had happened to alter their behavior, and for this, the opposition led by the Syrian Free Army deserves a share of the blame. In effect, diplomacy has been given multiple chances, and continues to be put forward as the only way to make a difference in the conflict, and yet it clearly lacks the authority and capabilities to stop the bloodshed and suspend the political struggle for control of the Syrian state.
This frustration of diplomacy over many months naturally turns our attention to more coercive options. Russia has been blamed for preventing stronger action being endorsed by the UN Security Council, and is even being charged by the American Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, with pushing Syria into a prolonged civil war due its unwillingness to back stronger collective measures in the Security Council. Whether Russia will alter its stance in response to these latest developments remains uncertain, but there is a definite call for new initiatives within and outside the UN. There are intimations of the formation of a new ‘coalition of the willing’ prepared to engage in military intervention, and even NGOs are demanding a stronger stand. For instance, Amnesty International has issued an appeal to the Security Council to call upon the International Criminal Court to issue indictments against the Syrian leadership for their role in the commission of severe crimes against humanity, culminating in the Houla Massacre.
Military intervention has been strongly advocated for several months by some irresponsibly belligerent political figures in the United States, most notably by John McCain, the Republican Senator who lost the presidential election to Barack Obama back in 2008. So far there seems little appetite for such a major new military undertaking even at the Pentagon, and certainly not among the American public. Also Syria has no substantial coveted oil reserves that might have swung the balance of governmental opinion toward intervention during the debate on what to do about Qaddafi’s Libya.
The logistics and politics surrounding any proposed military intervention in Syria make it an unrealistic option. There is not the political will to mount the kind of major military operation on the ground that would have reasonable hopes of combining regime change with an enforced stability until normalcy could be established by a new national leadership. Unlike Libya, where NATO’s reliance on air power without ground troops was able to turn the tide decisively, if destructively, in favor of rebel forces, such a scenario is viewed as inapplicable to Syria where there continues to exist more public support for the regime and more substantial military and paramilitary resources at its disposal, especially if it continue to receive military assistance from Iran. All in all, the military option would likely make matters worse for the Syrian people, increasing the magnitude of internal violence without having the effect of bringing the conflict to an end, or producing better hopes for the future in a society as conflict and divided by enmities, bad memories, and fears as is the case of Syria.
A major reason why it is suspicious to be too interventionary, or for that matter dogmatically aloof, is the radical uncertainty surrounding the nature of the anti-Assad coalition of forces within Syria, and the motivations of their external backers. Such uncertainty is particularly prevalent among Syrian minorities that seem to fear the collapse of the present regime in Damascus more than these dislike some of its oppressive behavior. How to act in such circumstances of uncertainty should counsel humility, but rarely does as this sort of acknowledgement hampers the kind of mobilization of support needed for bold action. What is certain is the bloody nature of the conflict, the indiscriminate tactics relied upon, and the efforts to terrorize the civilian population. While it is correct at this point to hold the government in power responsible and accountable, both sides have acted ruthlessly and in a manner that casts a dark cloud over Syria’s future.
The dilemma exposes the weakness of empathetic geopolitics in a world that continues to be dominated by territorially supreme sovereign states with insecure and antagonistic minorities. In the Syrian situation, this tragic reality is revealed in all its horror, complexity, and contradictions. It is unacceptable to remain a passive spectator in a media wired world where events are reported visually almost as they are occurring, or immediately thereafter, and there is no way to avert the gaze of the outside world that is both compassionate and untrustworthy. It is morally unacceptable to stand by, watch, and do nothing. But the UN lacks the authority, capability, and legitimacy to impose the collective will of international society except in those rare instances when it is able to mobilize an effective geopolitical consensus as it did in Libya (but only by deceiving Russia and China as to the scope of the response contemplated by the authorization of force in March of 2011), but the outcome still being shrouded in uncertainty and controversy. For reasons explained above, plus the lingering resentment due to the Libyan deception on the part of Russia and China, there has not yet emerged a similar geopolitical consensus favoring military intervention in Syria, and none seems likely. Just as doing nothing is unacceptable, mounting a military intervention is unrealistic, and perhaps undesirable, and for now politically impossible.
What is left to fill the gap between the unacceptable and the unrealistic is diplomacy, which has proved to be futile up to this point, but hanging on to the slim possibility that it might yet somehow produce positive results, is the only conceivable way forward with respect to the Syrian situation. It is easy to deride Kofi Annan and the frustrations arising from the repeated failures of Damascus to comply with the agreed framework, but it remains impossible to find preferable alternatives. If diplomacy is finally admitted to be a dead-end, as seems almost certain, it raises serious questions as to whether in a globalizing world the absence of stronger global institutions of a democratic character is not a fatal flaw in the 21st century structure of world order. Moral awareness without the political capacity to act responsively points up a desperate need for global reform, but the grossly unequal distributions of power and wealth in the world make unfeasible such adjustments for the foreseeable future. And so the peoples of the world seem destined to go on living in this tragic space between the unacceptable and the impossible. It will take a true miracle to overcome this gap for the benefit of the Syrian people, and others.