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Is an Intervention in Syria Inevitable?

( SANA, REUTERS / February 10, 2012 )

Among the many casualties of the disastrous Iraq war was that it has made us much more skeptical of intervening in foreign countries to stop what amounts to mass murder. However, as the situation in Syria continues to spin out of control, it seems almost inevitable that some coalition–with or without Russia and China, which have vetoed even modest U.N. proposals aimed at tongue-lashing the Syrian government–will have to do something.

The U.N. estimates that over the 11 months of the Syrian uprising 7,500 people have been killed by Syrian forces, and Al-Jazeera has reported that security forces have been murdering and even torturing young children.

Now with 100,000 people trapped in the city of Homs, which has been shelled for weeks by security forces, the government is threatening to “cleanse” the area of rebels. With the way that the pro-Assad forces have been behaving, it’s unlikely this means anything other than indiscriminate murder. As of this writing, Syrian forces had already launched a ground assault, and heavy fighting may already be under way.

In 2005, the U.N. devised an ideal called “responsibility to protect,” popularly known as R2P. The idea is that it’s the job of a state’s government to protect its citizens from atrocity, and if that government fails to do so or perpetrates the atrocities itself, the international community has a responsibility to step in. R2P obviously sounds nicer in language than it looks in practice. Just ask anyone who was paying attention to the 25,000 people slaughtered in Sri Lanka in 2009 when the government sought to destroy the rebel group, the Tamil Tigers. The U.N. barely batted an eye.

Still, inaction in the past is not an excuse for inaction in the present, and the Syrian situation, though incredibly complex and fraught with peril for any type of military action, nevertheless is beginning to demand it. 7,500 people killed over 11 months is bad, but there’s no reason that violence couldn’t escalate to the point where that number looks insignificant. Already, this rebellion has come pouring onto YouTube as citizens armed with cell phones and trapped journalists document the terror the military is wreaking across the country. Furthermore, if after all of this Bashar Assad’s regime remains in place a year from now with the rebellion quashed and nonviolent activists singled out for repression, torture and murder what will the rest of the world’s despots take from this lesson?

Before the Obama administration authorized military intervention in Libya to stop Qaddafi’s march on Benghazi, I read a particularly galling editorial from a “progressive writer” (of course I can’t remember who it was and couldn’t find it in time to write this, but you’ll get the point), who said that we didn’t need another war of aggression in the Middle East. The differences between Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria could not be greater, though, and whatever your political persuasion, it has become increasingly perilous since the Arab Spring began to assume that the West can sit back and allow wholesale slaughter.

While understanding that the military options in Syria are far from ideal, that Syria has a ruthless professional army and that any intervention could come with an enormous amount of collateral damage, the risks of inaction are beginning to look worse.

What began as a non-violent protest movement has escalated into a conflict just short of a civil war, and the chances of a regional conflagration appear greater than ever. Syria, wound tightly into the Arab-Israeli conflict, cannot be allowed to paint the oppression and murder of its citizens as some kind of proxy war with Israel and the West. Yet to watch a civil war to erupt and not side with pro-democratic forces in a meaningful way could open the door to a horrific stalemate. Right now with Assad refusing to back down, it seems unlikely even an imperfect Egypt-style solution or Bahrain-type rug sweep–where the Obama administration is taking a much softer line with the autocratic regime as it tries to shut down the protests with less killing and fewer attention-drawing repressive tactics–will suffice. Either Assad and Syria’s forces will “cleanse” the country of rebellion (peaceful and violent alike) or somebody’s going to step in and stop Assad. Both outcomes sound bad, but the former sounds much worse.

I write all this understanding that the Syrian opposition remains fractured, that the risks of entering another Middle Eastern sectarian conflict are enormous, and that any intervention will have to be limited, careful, and may not work, but to have Syria turn into a Somalia in the heart of the Middle East is unacceptable. There may come a point when the only way to avoid this outcome is to arm Syria’s rebels (assuming they can unite) and use Western air power to destroy as much of the government’s ability to wage war as  possible, while keeping in mind that we can not simply let the country’s Sunni majority undertake revenge campaigns against Assad’s governing Allawite minority.

If that sounds incredibly difficult and dangerous, well, that’s because it is.