No one, certainly not any of the protesters across Syria, has suggested military intervention to quell the Assad regime’s relentless campaign of violence. What Syrians eagerly want is explicit international condemnation of President Bashar al-Assad, and commensurate economic and diplomatic pressure that will force him to leave.
That was the message Radwan Ziadeh, a young opposition activist, brought to the U.N. Human Rights Council last week. “Syrians are looking for the Human Rights Council to unequivocally urge Syria to put an end to the regime’s clear shoot-to-kill policy,” he declared.
Ziadeh recalled that he had last flown to Geneva in April to address the council when it convened, for the first time ever, a special meeting devoted to Syria. With U.S. leadership, the council adopted a resolution on April 29 condemning Syria’s violation of human rights and “use of lethal violence against peaceful protesters.”
The council also decided to dispatch an investigative team to Syria. But it would take another three and a half months of ruthless killings and destruction until the Assad regime agreed to receive the delegation, and this only after the Human Rights Council convened for a second time, on August 22, to discuss the continuing, deteriorating situation. This time, 33 members of the Human Rights Council, including Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, voted for the resolution. Kuwait was elected to the Council earlier this year, after Syria was advised to withdraw its candidacy.
What the U.N. human rights investigators found, even with Syrian government restrictions on where they could go, confirmed the deepening concerns voiced by Navi Pillay, the U.N.’s human rights chief, about the regime’s crackdown. “It is our assessment that the scale and nature of these acts may amount to a crime against humanity,” Pillay said. She is urging that Assad be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
The Hague-based ICC has issued war crimes indictments against other Arab despots, notably Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi. There are solid grounds for indicting Assad as well, whose forces have killled at least 2,200, detained tens of thousands more, and, as Ziadeh pointed out, have generally “spread fear among Syrians.”
To even refer the matter to the ICC, however, requires action by the U.N. Security Council, whose tepid response so far to the situation in Syria has abandoned vast number of Syrians to Assad’s torments. Not only has the Security Council ignored its sister body, the Human Rights Council, it has even failed to consider resolutions prepared by several European nations, as well as the United States.
While these countries have a variety of ties to Syria, their objections are based on the alleged fear that Security Council condemnation and sanctions would somehow lead to military action, even though, unlike the case in regard to Libya, no one has asked for it.
On a positive note, those governments standing in the way of stronger, non-military action are dwindling in number. Earlier this week, the Arab League finally called on Syria to “end the spilling of blood and follow the way of reason before it is too late.”
Even U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was miffed by the Assad regime’s assertions that all shooting had stopped two weeks ago, hours after President Obama and several European governments called on Assad “to step aside.”
“It is troubling that he has not kept his word,” said Ban, according to Washington Post U.N. correspondent Colum Lynch. “Many world leaders have been speaking to him to halt immediately military operations that are killing his own people, and he asssured me [that he would] do that and [that] military operations have already stopped...I sincerely hope that he heeds the international community’s appeal and call” for restraint.
Temperance is not in Assad’s vocabulary. Syrian forces welcomed Eid al-Fitr, the festive holiday marking the end of Ramadan, just as they ushered in Islam’s holy month by firing on worshippers leaving mosques after prayers and continuing to violently besiege cities around the country.
Soon, the Syrian regime will further demonstrate its disdain for world opinion by sending Foreign Minister Walid Moallem to New York to attend the opening of the U.N. General Assembly session. Though the U.S. has imposed sanctions on Moallem and other senior officials, he, like Syria’s ally President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, has the right, according to international law, to fly into New York's John F. Kennedy Airport to participate in U.N. deliberations.
Moallem will find a welcome mat out at the U.N. Lebanon, which objected to the Arab League statement criticizing Syria, assumes the presidency of the U.N. Security Council for September. Syrians, bravely seeking fundamental changes in their country, see the window of opportunity for a united international response to the callous Assad regime closing.
Kenneth Bandler is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.