Mar 23rd 2012

Ineptitude Coupled with Moral Bankruptcy

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates


A little more than a week ago, a heart-wrenching photo by Rodrigo Abd appeared in the front pages of the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. The horror on the face of this young Syrian boy named Ahmed encapsulates the enormity of pain and the unspeakable agony this innocent child has endured during the funeral of his father who was killed the day before by a Syrian Army sniper. But this is only one face of a single boy. How many thousands of Syrian children have met similar fates-children whose faces we have not seen not only because of the Syrian authorities’ restrictions on media coverage but because of the ineptitude and moral bankruptcy of the international community to prevent such a tragedy from happening time and time again?

 
I have always advocated against the use of force in any conflict and maintained that conflicts can, and should, be resolved by well-meaning people in an equitable and humane way. But sadly, at times it takes the measured use of force to prevent a far greater violence from occurring against innocent people. The use of violence against a government that employs its military machines to massacre civilians is, thus, morally justified if it saves the lives of children such as Ahmed that are shattered by innumerable tragic losses. But every major power or group of nations, directly or indirectly involved in or affected by the Syrian uprising, has shamelessly used political convenience to explain their unwillingness to intervene to stop the carnage. Clearly, the Assad regime is committing crimes against humanity but the world remains unabashedly silent. 

It is unabashedly cynical and disgraceful that major powers like Russia and China are playing politics to keep Bashar Assad in power while he unleashes his army day in and day out to commit unspeakable atrocities against his own people. As Russian-made weapon systems are firing huge, 240mm explosive mortars at parts of the city of Homs, Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister commented in a briefing for foreign journalists in Moscow that, “we don’t have a basis to consider this military cooperation.” How hypocritical, bankrupt and shortsighted this policy is when in fact both Russia and China could have protected their national interests in Syria and in the region by playing a more constructive role. At the onset of the uprising, both countries should have counseled Assad to moderate his policies and act as intermediaries for a good cause, but they have not. When Bashar Assad falls, Russia and China will have to answer to the Syrian public and the Arab youth throughout the region as to what they have done. Thanks to Russian weapons and China’s unwavering support, the Syrian Army recently committed a massacre in the city of Homs and quelled the revolt in Idlib. Russia and China remained idle observers, allowing for horrifying images like this boy’s face to become commonplace once again. 

Under the so-called Obama Doctrine, it is understandable that the United States, which has just concluded a costly war in blood and treasure in Iraq and is still fighting another in Afghanistan, would shy away from engaging in another conflict that could have serious regional repercussions. But that is not the reason nor is it a good reason to allow the Syrian massacre to continue unabated. “It is the national elections stupid,” as someone recently put it. The Obama administration has simply forsaken the Syrian people and given in to Russian and Chinese bullying. The US’ stakes in the Middle East are extremely high and inaction will have far greater implications on US national security and economic interests than taking calculated military measures will. With or without a UNSC resolution, the Obama administration must act in coordination with its NATO partners. A safe haven should immediately be created on Syrian territory and a no-fly zone be declared to provide air cover for Syrian refugees and the grounds to train and organize army defectors while providing food medicine and weapons to those who are ready to die for freedom. Where are American values when desperately needed? Senator McCain was right in calling for US direct intervention by silencing Syria’s air defense.  The US would forfeit its moral obligations and its international standing as a force for good if it does not act with its partners to end the slaughter of innocent people like the father of this boy.

Although the United Nations General Assembly has condemned the Syrian atrocities by an overwhelming majority, the UNSC remains paralyzed because of Russia and China’s lack of any moral credence while armed with a veto power. Any country that refuses to come to the rescue of the Syrian people on the grounds that they must first be accorded a legal mandate to act must hear the outcries of the Syrian people and their constant pleas for help, which provide the only real legitimacy to act. Actors like Iran and Hezbollah who, under banners of religiosity, continue to support Assad’s slaughter of his own people and only debase Islam in the name of Islam. The Syrian freedom fighters have, for months, been demanding that the international community intervene militarily but to no avail. How many more thousands of Syrians must face the fate of this boy before they muster the courage to act?

Although Turkey has every reason to be extremely concerned over the rapidly-deteriorating events in Syria and is wary of taking bold action that may precipitate a wider sectarian conflict (not to mention an all out regional war) Ankara need not act alone. Ankara can, indeed must, do more in cooperation with its NATO partners.  It is one thing to claim to be a model for democratic Islam. It is another to stand firmly behind this principle and have the fortitude to act on it. It is time for Turkey to move beyond merely allowing refugees into its own territory, hosting the SNC and providing a safe haven for the Syrian army defectors. However admirable these steps are, they are inadequate in the face of continuing slaughter and Turkey’s ambition to become a regional power and effective in solving the crisis is at its doorsteps. The bloodletting conflict in Syria offers Ankara a historic, albeit sad, opportunity to change the dynamic on the ground by establishing a buffer zone, championing the cause of the Syrian people and positioning itself to exert influence in a post-Assad Syria. Finally, concerned over confrontation with Russia and Iran who back Syria, Ankara must come to terms with the fact that it cannot have it both ways. Syria is the battleground between Tehran and Ankara and severing the umbilical cord between Syria and Iran is the most desirable outcome for all states in the region. Absent an intervention, nothing will prevent Assad from persisting in the violent crackdowns that result in faces similar to this boy’s. 

The Syrian National Council (SNC) has openly called for an international military intervention to end the violence and protect civilians. But these calls will likely fall on deaf ears until the SNC makes itself a true representative body of the Syrian people and coordinates its activities with the Free Syrian Army. Thus far, the SNC has failed miserably in trying to achieve any kind of consensus, knowing full well that they must be fully organized and develop a unified political agenda for the future of Syria to command the respect and the support of the international community. Failing to move forward with one voice will further strengthen the argument of their detractors that they do not mirror the aspirations of the people and will provide more space for inaction by the countries that are reluctant to get involved. Meanwhile, more and more terrified faces like this boy’s face will continue to attest to the SNC’s ineptitude. 

Finally, of all the players, the Arab League (AL) is the most legitimate body that can act far more effectively to end the carnage in Syria. With the best of intentions, the AL has thus far been inept and failed to act collectively in an effort to force the Assad regime out of power. That said, as long as Assad is determined to crush all armed resistance, no compromise is possible. For the AL to pin down its hopes on Kofi Anan (former UN Secretary General who opposes arming the resistance and is against foreign intervention to achieve some diplomatic breakthrough) is an elusive move that would do nothing but further play into the hands of Assad. The AL should stick to its resolution of January 22, which makes no mention of dialogue with Damascus and suggests a political change beginning with Assad’s resignation and provides political cover for the Arab states to provide arms and other support to the opposition.  It is time for the AL, as a representative of the Arab world, to officially ask the US and NATO member states to help implement the AL-owned resolution. Turkey in particular needs the political cover that the AL and NATO can provide, allowing Ankara to move aggressively toward the establishment of a buffer zone. 

As this week marks the anniversary of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, the sad conclusion is that all the concerned parties have miserably failed to live up to their obligations to protect civilian protesters from being ruthlessly massacred for seeking their freedom. The fact that none of these players has been able to master the will nor the means to end the carnage in Syria suggests a shameful ineptitude coupled with a moral bankruptcy that will continue to haunt us many years after the Syrian conflict has been settled. 

I salute Mr. Rodrigo Abd for risking his life to show us in a single photo the unfolding human tragedy in Syria in the face of international ineptitude.

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