Ever since protests erupted in Syria in March, the Syrian opposition has put increasing pressure on President Bashar al-Assad's regime which, in the words of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has "lost legitimacy." There has also been isolated international pressure, including EU sanctions on travel, asset freezes, and oil imports. It is time, however, for a forceful international response to protect Syrian civilians.
The human rights situation in the country is dire. According to UN reports, Syrian security forces have killed more than 2,700 people since protests broke out. Thousands more have been arbitrarily arrested and tortured. Kyung-wha Kang, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, has declared that government brutality in Syria "may amount to crimes against humanity" and that her office is prepared to send a list of suspects to the International Criminal Court if the Security Council chooses to refer the case.
Radwan Ziadeh, founder and director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies in Syria, at a recent talk at Portland State University, said that the international community could do a number of things to assist protesters and precipitate the fall of the al-Assad regime. The UN Security Council could indict Assad in the ICC, pass economic sanctions, supervise an arms embargo, and enforce a no-fly zone. Ziadeh, a member of the opposition's Syrian National Council, said that these types of measures would serve to protect civilians against the brutality of the Assad regime while at the same time encourage more members of the security forces to defect.
Up until now, members of the Syrian security forces have mostly remained loyal to the regime, most likely out of fear of meeting a merciless end if they are recaptured by Assad loyalists. We should remember how important defections in the Egyptian army were to the revolution's success — both in terms of physical force and the morale of protesters. One critical moment in the Egyptian revolution came when the Armed Forces refused Mubarak's orders to crush demonstrators in Tahrir Square.
If an international effort against the regime is mounted, the actions would serve to confirm to members of the security forces that al-Assad has no political future and has lost legitimacy in the eyes of the world. A no-fly zone, in particular, could also help establish a "safe haven" over a swath of Syrian territory for defected military officers. Danny Abdullah, a Syrian British Activist who was shot during demonstrations in Homs, said, "If the killing spree continues then military intervention will be necessary by enforcing a no-fly zone because many of the soldiers who want to defect are frightened of an air strike. I think that if a no-fly zone were enforced 70% would defect."
However, at home and abroad, the voices of the Syrian opposition are not one. Calls for international intervention in Syria are not given the nod by all of the opposition. Some fear the all-out militarization of the anti-government movement and the potential this could create for civil war. International intervention may also be seen as taking the fate of Syria out of the hands of the Syrian people, turning a potential revolution into an outside job rather than a toppling of the regime from the inside. But many voices from the inside are calling for international aid, highlighting the importance of protecting the lives of civilians from the brutality of the Assad regime.
After what happened in Libya, it seems the phrase "responsibility to protect" has become a string of dirty words, as if this principle of preventing civilian abuse born from the atrocities in Rwanda is just a facade for Western adventurism. But previous international overreach should not deter the protection for innocent civilians that is now necessary in Syria. An international intervention does not need to take the form of rolling tanks and firing guns. Instead, the international community must take calculated measures that continue to put pressure on a regime that is slowly but surely faltering. The revolution in Syria belongs to the Syrian people, but pressure from both inside and outside the country will help complete this revolution.
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