Sep 8, 2013

Pulling the Curtain Back on Syria

WHEN I was a law student in 1982, I escaped torts by backpacking through Syria and taking a public bus to Hama, where the government had suppressed a rebellion by massacring some 20,000 people.

The center of Hama was pulverized into a vast field of rubble interspersed with bits of clothing, yet on the fringe of it stood, astonishingly, a tourism office. The two Syrian officials inside, thrilled to see an apparent tourist, weighed me down with leaflets about sightseeing in Hama and its ancient water wheels. After a bit of small talk, I pointed out the window at the moonscape and asked what had happened.

They peered out at the endless gravel pit.

“Huh?” one said nervously. “I don’t see anything.”

It feels to me a bit as if much of the world is reacting the same way today. The scale of the slaughter may be five times that of 1982, but few are interested in facing up to what is unfolding today out our window in Hama, Homs, Damascus and Aleppo.

As one woman tweeted to me: “We simply cannot stop every injustice in the world by using military weapons.”

Fair enough. But let’s be clear that this is not “every injustice”: On top of the 100,000-plus already killed in Syria, another 5,000 are being slaughtered monthly, according to the United Nations. Remember the Boston Massacre of 1770 from our history books, in which five people were killed? Syria loses that many people every 45 minutes on average, around the clock.

The rate of killing is accelerating. In the first year, 2011, there were fewer than 5,000 deaths. As of July 2012, there were still “only” 10,000, and the number has since soared tenfold.

A year ago, by United Nations calculations, there were 230,000 Syrian refugees. Now there are two million.

In other words, while there are many injustices around the world, from Darfur to eastern Congo, take it from one who has covered most of them: Syria is today the world capital of human suffering.

Skeptics are right about the drawbacks of getting involved, including the risk of retaliation. Yet let’s acknowledge that the alternative is, in effect, to acquiesce as the slaughter in Syria reaches perhaps the hundreds of thousands or more.

But what about the United Nations? How about a multilateral solution involving the Arab League? How about peace talks? What about an International Criminal Court prosecution?

All this sounds fine in theory, but Russia blocks progress in the United Nations. We’ve tried multilateral approaches, and Syrian leaders won’t negotiate a peace deal as long as they feel they’re winning on the ground. One risk of bringing in the International Criminal Court is that President Bashar al-Assad would be more wary of stepping down. The United Nations can’t stop the killing in Syria any more than in Darfur or Kosovo. As President Assad himself noted in 2009, “There is no substitute for the United States.”

So while neither intervention nor paralysis is appealing, that’s pretty much the menu. That’s why I favor a limited cruise missile strike against Syrian military targets (as well as the arming of moderate rebels). As I see it, there are several benefits: Such a strike may well deter Syria’s army from using chemical weapons again, probably can degrade the ability of the army to use chemical munitions and bomb civilian areas, can reinforce the global norm against chemical weapons, and — a more remote prospect — may slightly increase the pressure on the Assad regime to work out a peace deal.

If you’re thinking, “Those are incremental, speculative and highly uncertain gains,” well, you’re right. Syria will be bloody whatever we do.

Mine is a minority view. After the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the West is bone weary and has little interest in atrocities unfolding in Syria or anywhere else. Opposition to missile strikes is one of the few issues that ordinary Democrats and Republicans agree on.

“So we’re bombing Syria because Syria is bombing Syria?” Sarah Palin wrote, in a rare comment that liberals might endorse. Her suggestion: “Let Allah sort it out.”

More broadly, pollsters are detecting a rise in isolationism. The proportion of Americans who say that “the U.S. should mind its own business internationally” has been at a historic high in recent years.

A Pew survey this year asked voters to rate 19 government expenses, and the top two choices for budget cuts were “aid to the world’s needy” and the State Department. (In fact, 0.5 percent of the budget goes to the world’s needy, and, until recently, the military had more musicians in its bands than the State Department had diplomats.)

When history looks back on this moment, will it view those who opposed intervening as champions of peace? Or, when the textbooks count the dead children, and the international norms broken with impunity, will our descendants puzzle that we took pride in retreating into passivity during this slaughter?

Isn’t this a bit like the idealists who embraced the Kellogg-Briand Pact that banned war 85 years ago? Sure, that made people feel good. But it may also have encouraged the appeasement that ultimately cost lives in World War II.

O.K., so I’ve just added fuel to the battle for analogies. For now, the one that has caught on is Iraq in 2003. But considering that no one is contemplating boots on the ground, a more relevant analogy in Iraq may be the 1998 Operation Desert Fox bombing of Iraqi military sites by President Bill Clinton. It lasted a few days, and some say it was a factor in leading Iraq to give up W.M.D. programs; others disagree.

THAT murkiness is not surprising. To me, the lessons of history in this area are complex and conflicting, offering no neat formula to reach peace or alleviate war. In most cases, diplomacy works best. But not always. When Yugoslavia was collapsing into civil war in the early 1990s, early efforts at multilateral diplomacy delayed firm action and led to a higher body count.

Some military interventions, as in Sierra Leone, Bosnia and Kosovo, have worked well. Others, such as Iraq in 2003, worked very badly. Still others, such as Libya, had mixed results. Afghanistan and Somalia were promising at first but then evolved badly.

So, having said that analogies aren’t necessarily helpful, let me leave you with a final provocation.

If we were fighting against an incomparably harsher dictator using chemical weapons on our own neighborhoods, and dropping napalm-like substances on our children’s schools, would we regard other countries as “pro-peace” if they sat on the fence as our dead piled up?

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