In March 2011, a democratic uprising erupted in Syria. The government response has been brutal and swift. The authoritarian regime of Bashar al-Assad and his Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party has engaged in a campaign of genocide, arrests, and displacement. The Arab Spring is dying in the streets of Syria. The international community must intervene quickly and decisively to prevent the escalation of violence and the U.S. must support the effort. We have a responsibility to protect the people of Syria.
The current center of resistance to the Assad regime is the city of Homs, which the Syrian army has ringed with tanks and for the past seven days has been shelling non-stop. On February 8th alone, more than 200 people were reported dead in the city. Estimates of casualties from the Syrian uprising vary widely (because of government censorship) but are thought to be as high as 7,000 people between civilians and regime personnel. Tens of thousands of people have been imprisoned in the process and around 12,000 people are sheltered in refugee camps in southern Turkey.
Members of Assad’s security forces have broken ranks and mobilized a Free Syrian Army that has embarked on a campaign of guerilla warfare to disrupt military operations targeted towards civilians. And by the end of January, the suburbs of Damascus had been occupied by protestors before being driven out by Assad’s forces. Syria is on the verge of chaos.
The Arab League sent observers to the country to investigate claims of genocide, but the mission quit in protest, accusing the Syrian government of using the observers for political cover to ramp up its campaign of targeted killings. Since their exit the Arab League has called for international intervention to prevent further bloodshed in Syria.
The United States has a choice. It can be proactive in support of the Arab Spring and promote democracy by supporting a generation of Arab youth that will define the geopolitical future of the Middle East. Or it can be reactive and seek short-term gains by publicly (or privately) attempting to prop up authoritarian regimes that publicly (or privately) sponsor terrorism and will eventually collapse from internal pressure. The choice is simple.
And while there should be justified debate concerning how much of the burden of leadership the United States should bear, we cannot argue over whether the U.S. has a responsibility to assist with the protection of the Syrian people. Intervention in Syria is justified.
The international community’s model of engagement with Libya can be viewed as a good model for how the West can proceed. The U.S. should work as a “super-partner” to forge a coalition of European and Arab allies that will assume leadership and responsibility for engagement with Syria. This coalition will establish diplomatic contact with the Syrian National Council and funnel arms to the Syrian opposition, establish safe corridors for refugees, and neutralize the ability of the Syrian government to wage war on its citizens. Assad’s regime must be forced to come to the table with the Syrian National Council and negotiate a peaceful transition or, if Assad attempts to cling to power, weaken his regime enough so that he can be violently overthrown.
Some commentators have voiced the concern that intervention in Syria is not possible because of the country’s strong relationships with Russia and Iran, believing that Assad will have the political cover to destroy opposition forces and regain total control of his country. But while the Syrian regime is attempting to grind down opposition, they are on a ticking clock. Syria is not an oil-rich regime and they are running out of the money fast. That’s money used not just to pay for military intervention but also to bribe troops into cooperating. The Assad regime has only one source of external funding, the theocratic regime in Iran that is experiencing its own fiscal emergency thanks to the sanctions employed by the U.S. and the E.U.
Turkey is already planning operations with the U.S. and has been tightening the screws on the Assad regime. The country currently hosts the exiled Syrian National Council as well as serving as a base of operations for the Free Syrian Army. Moderate Islamists who have won political success from the Arab Spring view Turkey as a model for democratic and economic development and the country has a lot to gain from decapitating the Assad regime. And the U.S. has a lot to gain by strengthening its regional ally and decapitating a rogue regime that supports terrorism against Israel and is armed to the teeth with a stockpile of weapons of mass destruction.
2012 is an election year in the U.S. and polls show that American voters really don’t care what’s happening in Syria. But that doesn’t erase our country’s responsibility to respond to a humanitarian crisis that has profound implications for the international system. It’s America’s duty to promote democracy and human rights abroad. It’s America’s responsibility to promote freedom from want and oppression abroad. And it’s the right of the international community to intervene in a country’s affairs when a government declares war on its citizens. The international community and the U.S. have the responsibility to protect the people of Syria. The Arab Spring must continue. Syria must be free.
Photo Credit: FreedomHouse