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January 03, 2012, Tuesday

No responsibility to protect in Syria?

How much longer can we stand by and witness the ongoing killing of civilians in neighboring Syria? The question keeps popping up in my mind each time I read about the daily count of people murdered in Homs, Damascus or anywhere else by a ruthless dictator not willing to give in to mounting international pressure.

The latest effort to stop the bloodshed was by the Arab League. They sent a mission to Syria last week to check whether the Syrian regime was keeping its promise to the league to end the violence and withdraw its troops from the inner cities. The mission utterly failed. Syrian activists say more than 150 people have been killed since the monitors arrived. The Arab League's director, Nabil al-Arabi, had to concede last Monday that the mission had not been able to stop the Syrian authorities from killing their opponents.

What does the Syrian opposition want? In an interview with Today's Zaman, Mohammad Bassam Imadi, a member of the Syrian National Council (SNC), remained optimistic about the will of the Syrian people to keep coming out and demonstrating against the regime. According to him, the fall of the Assad government is inevitable. The only thing Imadi asked for was the establishment of buffer zones along the Turkish and Jordanian border. These would give refuge to civilians and army defectors who want to escape from the oppression and for the moment have no place to go.

On the other hand, Samir Nashar, a member of the SNC's executive board, claimed two days ago in an interview with The Washington Times that the majority of SNC leaders now support international military action but are not brave enough to express it openly. Nashar no longer believes that the popular uprising alone can force Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down or trigger a coup d'état within the regime. According to him, people on the ground are growing restless and desperate and would not object to a Turkish-led NATO operation with cover from Arab states.

What to make of this contradicting advice coming from the main Syrian opposition? Was Marc Lynch, an American Middle East specialist who is very active on Twitter, correct when he tweeted on Monday that basically Syrian opposition leaders still don't know what they want, just like the rest of the world doesn't know what it can do?

It reminds me of the debate we had last year on the merits of military intervention in Libya. Remember Gaddafi's threat to kill the citizens of Benghazi who opposed his rule? Together with many others, I supported a French-British led military operation to prevent mass killings. Many of us referred to the responsibility to protect (R2P) doctrine, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly some years ago, that legitimizes international intervention in situations where national authorities are no longer able or willing to protect their citizens.

Why could R2P be invoked in Libya and not in Syria? I know there are important differences between the two cases, and I fully realize the huge potential regional and international consequences of a military intervention in Syria. It is true that in deciding on outside action, moral indignation alone is not enough. It should also be feasible and effective. Still, it breaks my heart to read each day about dozens of brave Syrians being butchered by a mass murderer who knows very well that the international community is paralyzed and does not know what to do.

On one of the leading English language Arab websites, Jadaliyya (, Ziad Majed recently posted a passionate plea for the Syrian activists to stick to non-violence. He listed the enormous achievements of the present strategy such as the destruction of the barrier of fear and the involvement of women. According to Majed, the popular revolution has gradually weakened the regime and transformed it into a terrified killing machine incapable of defeating or controlling its “enemies.” For political, moral and pragmatic reasons, non-violent action is still the superior choice. I was impressed by Majed's arguments and perseverance in the face of so much brutality. He is probably right. Military intervention could make things even worse, and it would shift the leadership of the domestic opposition from civilian citizen bodies to militant groups. But it is hard to accept that R2P may still be a nice idea that, unfortunately, cannot always be implemented in situations that cry out for action.

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