Time to Put a Stop to the Horrors in Syria

"One size fits all" is never a suitable strategy for addressing concurrent Middle East crises. Nearing the first anniversary of the beginning of upheavals across the Arab world, there is no doubt that the complexity of each country requires a tailored approach.

What seems to have worked in Libya—a mix of domestic opposition to strongman Muammar Qaddafi and international support to force his overthrow—is not applicable to other Arab countries in turmoil, certainly not Syria.

Qaddafi’s quixotic personality, open support for international terrorism, and public vows to kill rebels opposing his rule prompted U.S., European and Arab governments to coalesce in support of the rebels, who were armed and already engaged in battle against the regime.

The situation in Syria is quite different. There is no organized armed rebellion. Syrians are largely defenseless, at the mercy of :President Bashar al Assad’s armed forces and security services. Economic sanctions have not yet been fully employed. No nation desires to intervene militarily, nor has the Syrian opposition sought NATO assistance.

The ferocity of Assad’s bloody campaign against his own citizens has intensified, largely in response to the growing international criticism of his regime, and shows no sign of letting up.

“The heart of every Syrian is tremendously hurt by watching the victims fall daily and the slow response of the international community,” Radwan Ziadeh, a leading Syrian human rights activist, told the U.N. Human Rights Council this month. The U.N. says that more than 5,000 have been killed, while some in the Syrian opposition claim the total exceeds 6,000.

International follow-up has been inconsistent and slow. For the masses of Syrians standing up to the Assad regime, the Arab League’s reticence has been so disappointing that organizers of the weekly Friday mass protests in Syria decided to dub today’s demonstrations “Protocol of Death, License to Kill.”

This was a direct reference to the protocol Syria and the Arab League signed on Monday that will allow an observer mission to visit the country to help ensure that it implements the Arab League plan Assad accepted on November 2. That plan, endorsed by the U.N. General Assembly, calls for Syria to withdraw its forces from cities and towns and begin talks with the opposition.

Assad’s acceptance of the Arab League plan has turned out to be just as hollow as the national speeches he delivered months ago promising reform, and just as costly, if not more so, in terms of lives lost.

Even as the Arab League advance team arrived in Damascus yesterday, the regime’s killings continued in what has been the most deadly week since the crackdown began in mid-March. More than 200 were killed in what has widely been reported as a massacre.

Further complicating the situation is today’s deadly car bombings in Damascus, the first mass bloody attack in Syria’s capital. It is unclear who is responsible. Assad will surely exploit the bombings to further promote his regime’s message that “terrorist gangs” are behind the revolts, a claim that legitimizes the regime’s use of massive force.

That is, of course, poppycock. If world leaders are truly committed to seeing Assad go, they must mobilize together to make him leave. Here, the U.S. can play a critical leadership role.

The only U.N. body with real power that can impose sanctions and refer Assad to the International Criminal Court is the Security Council. There must be a concerted effort now to adopt a meaningful U.N. Security Council resolution. Russia and China, which so far have blocked such council action, must understand that the Assad regime’s continuation threatens their own interests in Syria.

Arab League sanctions that have already been approved should be implemented without delay. Assad has been given more than enough chances to stop the violence. Presently, only the U.S. and EU sanctions are in place. Arab action will increase pressure on Assad and also on the Security Council to act decisively.

The White House should recognize that sending Ambassador Ford back to Damascus was a mistake. Coming after the U.S. Embassy was attacked and several Arab ambassadors departed, Ford’s return sent mixed messages about the U.S. resolve to join with other nations in supporting the Syrian protesters and ending the Assad regime.

Furthermore, all presidential candidates should acknowledge that the Syrian crisis is just as important to U.S. foreign policy as Iran. The two regimes are allies, violently confronting their respective internal oppositions, denying human rights, and facing the wrath of the international community.

Looking back on this past year, the final outcome is uncertain for each of the Arab countries undergoing an upheaval. But failure to act because of fear of what may happen in Syria after Assad finally falls is risking the loss of more innocent lives and growing instability. It is imperative to recognize the evil and take the bold actions to end the horrors that the Syrian people are enduring.

Kenneth Bandler is the American Jewish Commitee’s Director of Media Relations.