Editor’s note: The New Statesman’s leader on Syria can be read here.
Following the appalling savagery at Houla, Kofi Annan declared: “we are at a tipping point”. We are not, we are already peering into the abyss, watching those suffering within it, and ignoring their calls for help as we pontificate on the niceties of international law and power-politics. Given his experience of the Rwanda genocide, Annan knows that there is no “tipping point” above which the number slaughtered either shocks the perpetrators into relending, or shames the international community into acting. The UN and international community have previously stood by as hundreds of thousands of innocents perished, and will do so again unless the moral case for the responsibility to protect is articulated more forcefully. To do this, we must listen to and then act on behalf of the victims, or else their human rights enshrined in ‘international law’ shall once again be shown to be worth little more than the paper on which they’re written. Given the futility of diplomacy, robust military intervention must now be planned.
In domestic politics, the rights of victims of crime are often forgotten amid our clamour to uphold those of defendants. This pattern, when transferred to the international stage, helps perpetuate an ‘aggressor’s charter’ prioritising the rights of criminal governments over those of civilian populations. It is time for a reversal so that in future the rights of ordinary human beings to life and liberty trump an illegitimate government’s right to protection from outside interference in its affairs, or the broader strategic interests of their allies. Only the superb reporting of journalists such as the late Marie Colvin, Tom Coghlan, Martin Fletcher (£), and Alex Thomson (to name but a few) has given voice to these voiceless thousands, from which we should conclude that each time the Assad regime gets away with these despicable acts, the world becomes less stable and less safe for us all.
It is of course important to ponder whether an alternative naval base might be found for Russia in the Mediterranean or how they might keep their base in a post-Assad Syria; whether a Yemen-style top-level political solution can be found through which Assad goes but the regime clings on; whether the nature of Syria’s air defences render attack impossible; or whether Syria’s multi-ethnic composition and lack of unified opposition mean any intervention would merely provoke far greater human suffering in future. However, the geopolitical strategic calculations and debates about the practical implications all too often ignore the voices and interests of the civilians, the victims, who matter most.
At this stage of the crisis, three fundamental conclusions can be drawn. First, in its desperation to cling to power, this regime will countenance depravity up to and beyond the level of his father’s massacre of 20,000 civilians at Hama in 1982. Second, diplomatic pressure alone is no deterrent. The Annan Plan has failed because in seeking to end violence on both sides, it delegitimised the right of civilians to resist a dictator who is oppressing them, whilst simultaneously failing to afford them either the physical security or the democratic reforms they desire and deserve. Equally, like Milošević and Saddam Hussein, Assad is well-versed in Stalin’s doctrine: ‘how many divisions does the Pope have?’ and will only desist when confronted by overwhelming military force. Third, Russia and China’s diplomatic and military support for Assad, confirmed again on Wednesday, is likely to remain sufficiently robust as to prevent the Security Council sanctioning of any form of military intervention, thereby bolstering Assad’s confidence that he acts with impunity.
What can be done to break this impasse? The most credible military option, the creation of militarily-protected safe zones in North West Syria, is now being mooted by, amongst others, serious and experienced people such as Anne-Marie Slaughter, former Director of Planning at the US State Department, and Ann Clwyd MP, Tony Blair’s former special envoy to Iraq and now a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Even this would probably fall foul of the Chinese and Russian veto. Therefore, the international community, and indeed each of us, must ask whether for the sake of not offending the sentiments and interests of these Security Council members, we are willing to allow the death-toll to rise from 18,000 towards the levels of Bosnia or Sudan?
International law should not be conflated with doing the right thing, and the victims of Houla and countless other places in Syria, require that for once, we protect them, rather than protecting a discredited, immoral international political system. The Arab Spring has shown that ordinary citizens rising up in pursuit of freedom and democracy can topple nefarious regimes. The ferocity of Assad’s response indicates his deep fear of the unstoppable, eternal urge of people to govern their own destiny and live in dignity. Facing down cynical, brutal evil has never been easy and will not be this time. We owe the innocent civilians of Syria our support, for their sake, and in defence of the principle that the rights of ordinary people must prevail.
John Slinger is chair of Pragmatic Radicalism and blogs at Slingerblog. He was formerly researcher to Ann Clwyd MP (accompanying her to Baghdad in 2005 & 2006 when she was the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy to Iraq on Human Rights).