Waiting for Halabja
~by Creon Critic
What exactly is the delay in formulating a comprehensive strategy to transition the Assad regime out of power in Syria? However reluctant President Obama is to get further involved in another Middle East conflict, the clear threats to US national interests are already upon us. Which is why the US and allies have already been on the diplomatic track with Syria for quite some time. Nudging, cajoling, counseling, back channel signaling, and finally threatening to get to some sort of satisfactory agreement that doesn’t allow the Syria conflict to fester.
Keep in mind we are already two UN-Arab League envoys into this conflict, with the current envoy paving the way for stepping down in the coming months (FP). This month marks one year from the first, failed, Geneva conference peace attempt. We’re nine Human Rights Council resolutions and four Commission of Inquiry reports into the conflict. We’ve had one UN General Assembly resolution on the conflict. Altogether, months of diplomacy, reams of resolutions, communiqués, and reports. The diplomatic language has gotten as severe as diplomatic language can get. We have already had the denouncing, deploring, objecting, and condemning. We have even had a red line.
Bashar al-Assad must be transitioned out of power. That has been the US policy. From Obama in August 2011, “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” (WashPo). There can be no doubt that US national interests are implicated. Syria is in a region of longstanding strategic significance to the US. Syria borders one NATO ally, Turkey, and two major non-NATO allies, to use the official designation for Jordan and Israel. Syria possesses significant stockpiles of chemical weapons. And finally, the Assad regime is backed by Iran, a key US strategic challenger in the region. (All the liberals dabbling in realism and lecturing about how foolish the George W. Bush administration was to remove key Iranian challengers, Hussein’s Iraq and the Taliban’s Afghanistan, they should be jumping at the opportunity to remove Assad from power, a key Iranian partner.)
If the geostrategic case isn’t strong enough, there is the fact that Syria is a man-made humanitarian catastrophe with no signs of diffusing without international community intervention. The UN estimates 10 million Syrians will need assistance by years end; that is half the population (BBC). The gross human rights violations have prompted the UN Human Rights Council to pass nine resolutions focusing mainly against Syrian regime misconduct. Misconduct catalogued in detail in reports that should “shock the conscience of mankind”.
And here we come to the paramount test that should dispel all doubt as to whether the US needs to dramatically step up the diplomatic and military pressure against the Assad regime: conduct that shocks the conscience of mankind. Yes, sovereignty is an important aspect of the international system. But we should remember sovereignty was established to solve a particular set of political problems stemming from the European wars of religion. The peace of Westphalia, whose realm, his religion (cuius regio, eius religio), and the principles associated with it must also accommodate the many changes in the world since 1648. One would expect, especially for people who believe in a living Constitution, to not have fixed our notions about statehood and its privileges in the 17th century.
Unfortunately for the people of Syria, the Assad regime has given voluminous evidence that it should no longer benefit from the international community’s normally deferential stance in light of sovereignty. Take for instance a fairly straightforward injunction from customary international humanitarian law Rule 74: “The use of chemical weapons is prohibited.” Sarin use clearly falls into the “not permitted” category.
The Obama administration has already waited far too long to demonstrate forceful leadership in implementing an aim expressed in 2011. The Deputy National Security Adviser should not be the one doing the briefing, outlining, and explaining while the president is occupied with other events (as the NYT reports). As with Qom and Iran, where Obama stood with the President of France and the Prime Minister of the UK, Obama should have stood with allies and outlined the next phases in seeing through the removal of Assad from power. Hopefully Obama will use the G8 as an opportunity to assert US leadership on Syria.
I’ll close with my questions to the non-interventionists and everyone counseling the US and international community to wait and see. Wait and see for what? Wait for more challenges to the stability of the region and the security of Israel, Turkey, and Jordan (let alone Lebanon and Iraq)? Wait for millions more refugees and internally displaced? Wait for more extensive use of chemical weapons? Wait for a Syrian Halabja?
Why wait for even more war crimes, even more crimes against humanity, and even more systematic, widespread, and gross violations of human rights?