Assad's killing fields

Our view: Options to stop Syrian despot's brutality are limited

March 26, 2012

The announcement Sunday that the U.S. will join Turkey in providing "nonlethal" humanitarian aid to Syrian opposition groups is a clear sign of the Obama administration's growing frustration with the failure of diplomatic efforts to halt Syrian President Bashar Assad's bloody crackdown on dissent. But it's still far from clear whether that modest escalation of involvement in the conflict will hasten Mr. Assad's departure from the scene.

The U.S. has been calling on the U.N. Security Council for weeks to prevent what officials fear is a looming humanitarian disaster on the order of the mass killings in Kosovo and Bosnia during the 1990s. But progress on that front has been blocked by Russia and China. The latest move ratchets up America's involvement in a way that suggests the U.S. believes it can't stand by while a similar calamity is repeated on its watch, but so far there are few indications some "coalition of the willing" is ready to back stronger action against the Assad regime.

The situation is getting worse by the day. Mr. Assad ignored a Security Council resolution last week calling on him to pull his forces back from rebellious cities across the country and open talks with the rebels under the auspices of former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Instead, Mr. Assad's troops intensified the attacks that by some estimates have claimed the lives of more than 9,000 civilians since the uprising began a year ago. Mr. Assad's father, the late President Hafez Assad, massacred tens of thousands of his own citizens in order to put down uprisings in the early 1980s. Now his son appears more than willing to match or exceed his father's record of mass murder in order to maintain his own grip on power.

President Obama wisely insists the U.S. must be cautious about any potential American militarily involvement inSyria's conflict, which has morphed from peaceful demonstrations into a virtual civil war. Having just wound down the war in Iraq, and currently in the midst of a delicate withdrawal from Afghanistan, neither Mr. Obama nor the American people are eager to start a war with another Middle Eastern country. But as the death toll in Syria mounts, it's increasingly difficult to see how intervention of some kind can be avoided if the U.S. hopes to achieve even the limited goal of providing Syria's beleaguered civilian population with desperately needed humanitarian aid.

The president is certainly right that the situation in Syria is unlike that in Libya last year when NATO air attacks helped a rag-tag insurgency topple Moammar Gadhafi's brutal dictatorship. Not only does Syria have a far more sophisticated air defense network than did Libya, making an air campaign riskier, but the Libya action was backed by a Security Council resolution authorizing foreign military intervention to protect civilians, and NATO had the support of regional partners. And despite factional squabbles among the insurgents, the opposition to Gadhafi was able to present a reasonably united front when it came to forcing his ouster.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton thought Russia was on board for similarly robust measures when it signed off on last week's Security Council resolution calling for a cease fire and negotiations between rebels and the government. She was furious when Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov reneged on that commitment the next day, but perhaps it shouldn't have come as a surprise. Both Russia and China are still smarting from what they consider Western overreaching after they abstained from the Security Council vote authorizing intervention in Libya.

With the Security Council stalemated and Mr. Assad apparently confident he has all the time in the world to crush his opponents, the only thing likely to avert future civilian deaths on a massive scale is Western military intervention in partnership with regional allies. America can't take on that job alone, and even the behind-the-scenes role it played in Libya — providing intelligence, communications and in-flight refueling for NATO strike aircraft — presents greater risks than did the mission against Gadhafi. Mr. Obama is going to have to balance all those dangers against the likelihood history will judge his presidency harshly if Syria turns into another Kosovo or Bosnia and he did nothing to stop it. As much as we would like the United States to avoid another military entanglement, we fear Mr. Assad's brutality will soon leave no other choice.

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