What Can Be Done About Syria? Tragedy and Impotence

31 May


            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 Counil.  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, for instance, 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 deadend  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.

14 Responses to “What Can Be Done About Syria? Tragedy and Impotence”

  1. Peri Pamir June 1, 2012 at 1:31 am #

    Brilliant ! I’m so glad you finally used your magic pen to speak about the utterly tragic events unfolding in Syria, culminating with the Houla massacre.. Just as Srebrenica (1995), Sabra and Shatila (1982), Halabja (1988), Rwanda(1994) or even Homs (1982) remain forever etched in our minds as brutal examples of state terrorism, so now will Houla and the unbearably tragic sight of all the small coffins laid out for burial..

    The number one world problem that the global community should be discussing now is the point you raise re the paralysis of the UN in dealing with the crisis at hand and what could possibly be done to bridge “the gap between the unacceptable and the impossible” as you put it. Otherwise we will slowly slide back into living in a world which we had promised to banish where evil goes unchecked and where innocents continue to be slaughtered before our very eyes .. It seems to me that the main knot that will unhinge this partic global impasse is (principally) Russia’s attitude to the Syrian regime.. Something must give way soon to stop the carnage !

  2. Paul Wapner June 1, 2012 at 3:11 pm #

    This is a gem of insight. Like usual, you capture my thinking before I can formulate it. Yes, Syria reveals the tragic nature of much international life. You rightfully emphasize diplomacy as the best of unlikely hopes. In tragic times, expressing one’s humanity is an important form of resistance. Thanks for writing.

  3. Claudia Damon June 1, 2012 at 7:15 pm #

    Wonderfully well said. I’m hoping for a miracle to end this tragedy.

    • Richard Falk June 1, 2012 at 11:22 pm #

      Thanks, Claudia, your supportive words warmly appreciated, especially
      while here in Istanbul. Richard

  4. rehmat1 June 2, 2012 at 9:34 am #

    We are seeing western imperialism being replayed in Syria – as was the case in Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia and Libya – which boils down to a pro-US regime change in Damascus. As an anti-Iran politician sated that the “road to Tehran passes through Damascus and Beirut”.

    Syria poses no threat to Israel or any of US puppet regimes in the Middle East. However, Syria is a strategic ally to Iran and Hizbullah. The later is the only Arab resistance militia which has humiliated Israeli army twice – in 2000 and 2006.

    Israeli deputy prime minister admitted last week that a new regime in Damascus will be good for Israel.

    Pro-Israel, BBC is caught red-handed for faking Iraqi massacre pictures to pin Houla massacre on Bashar al-Assad government.


  5. monalisa June 2, 2012 at 11:31 am #

    Dear Richard,
    thank you so much to write about this.

    Anyhow, I don’t agree when it comes to Syria that the people/Syrian military are responsible for this massacre.
    I am very much critical of mainstream media reports.

    Also Syria has many ethnic as well as religious groups. And what has been written above concerning BBC I agree this because it isn’t the first time when pictures and informations are either completely from other places or mixed with as well as manitpulated and not giving a true information/picture/view of reality.

    It has become “very useful for some super power/s” to use the label “Al Kaida” as well as “terrorists” whenever it is appropriate to mask the real power behind such massacres.

    It is very interesting also to note that some rebellious groups are well equipped. Too well.

    And all comes to one point only: who or which country wants to destabilize other countries in order to gain supremacy, to control and most of all: having its hands over some very important ressources, whether it is oil or rare elements.
    Which power encircled Russia, China and stationed their military fleets in strategic important places ? This can be read in the Internet, their website is very interesting, even when the latest strategic places aren’t listed. What can be read is enough to chill my spine.

    And concerning Assad: which country was most affected with about three and half million refugees form Irak ? Syria gave them at least a place, even when they had nothing to do with this Irak war and most of all: Syria isn’t a very rich country.
    So the Western powers didn’t much to help those millions of refugees from Irak; Syria had and still has to bear a lot.

    When a crime is done usually the first question is: who benefits.
    This question should have asked for 9/11, als well as for Libya.

    Neither USA, nor Britain, nor Italy and even the French had ever some sruple to instigate and do some massacres in other countries. History tells us that people got paid to instigate turmoils. Nothing new on this globe.

    The greed for power is ready to smash.

    Scientists and clergymen kidnapped, murdered.

    Nowadays under the flag of “freedom, democracy” paid people/secret services are working very well.

    In don’t believe any Western country concerning the flag “helping to install democracy” when it comes to other countries.
    And I don’t believe any longer the indepedence of the UNO. To much has happened the last century.

    I wish a miracle would happen ….yes I wish that …that other countries get real support and not massacres …not bombs …not drones over their heads …

    Take care of yourself,


  6. deepaktripathi June 3, 2012 at 9:54 am #

    One of the most telling parts of this illuminating article says –

    “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 recent experience of Libya, a country now in considerable disorder with implications for the whole region after what is seen as Nato going beyond its original mandate, has made the dilemma over Syria more acute.

    The international community’s inability to ensure that humanitarian intervention remains humanitarian, and does not become geopolitical in its aims, is a tragedy without remedy. Slaughter of innocent people must stop, now. But what might there be immediately after in the light of recent experiences is equally important if greater tragedy is to be avoided.

  7. Bob Cunningham June 5, 2012 at 5:08 pm #

    Richard–Nicely done. No sugar coating or hopeful expectations to cloud the reality. We need to deal with the human consequences likely in the future from failing to put together structures that at least the major powers can agree to. The little fish always must be more agile to survive, and maybe someday they will be included within the pale. We have a hegemonic economic world. Can we not at least put together a structure for dealing with human rights prior to the intrusion of presumed national interests raise their narrow heads?
    –Bob Cunningham

    • Richard Falk June 6, 2012 at 8:47 am #

      Thanks for thoughtful comment. I doubt that leading governments will allow any capability to exist that has authority and capabilities to act independently of their approval. Otherwise, the formation of an independently funded UN Emergency Force would be the sensible way to provide the world with some hope of averting humanitarian catastrophes.

  8. Beau Oolayforos November 23, 2014 at 6:35 pm #

    Dear Professor Falk,
    If military intervention isn’t feasible, and diplomatic action looks hopeless, it seems to me our best option might be creative assimilation of the Syrian diaspora. We shouldn’t make Jordan and Turkey do all this – they should be conduits through which refugees can get out of the hellhole and start new lives. Sweden has made some evidently generous moves in this direction – it is past time for other nations to prove their own compassion, if they have any.


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