Make sure time is not on his side
President Obama issued a statement Friday (that’s when we say things we don’t want too widely noticed) marking the 18th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide:
…we pause to reflect with horror and sadness on the 100 days in 1994 when 800,000 people lost their lives. The specter of this slaughter of mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters haunts us still, and reminds the nations of the world of our shared responsibility to do all we can to protect civilians and to ensure that evil of this magnitude never happens again.
The irony here should not be lost: we are in the midst of a much slower and less bloody but still brutal repression of civilian dissent in Syria, where the toll amounts to something over 10,000 during the past year. No one has called it genocide, but it is certainly what the trade knows as politicide: an effort to murder political opponents, especially of the Sunni Islamist persuasion, into submission. Human Rights Watch reports today on extrajudicial executions.
I can imagine the discussion among the White House staff. Some will have argued: let’s get the President to put out a statement on Rwanda that is also applicable to Syria today. Maybe that will get some action. Others will have added that phrase at the end about the magnitude of the evil, hoping to avoid the obvious implication that we really ought to do something to stop Bashar al Assad. The result is a statement that sounds vigorous but implies nothing.
Don’t get me wrong: I understand full well why the White House would hesitate to take military action in Syria. But we should be asking ourselves if we are doing everything in our power short of military force to end Bashar’s brutal crackdown as soon as possible. The Obama Administration will claim it is doing its best. Here is a checklist to make sure:
1. Provide financial, communications and intelligence support to the Syrian opposition provided it unifies and keeps its efforts as peaceful as possible. This should include real-time intelligence on the operations of the Syrian army, which is necessary for protection of civilians.
2. Encourage the opposition to flesh out its National Covenant with more specific provisions to protect minorities and regime loyalists from revenge killing should Bashar al Assad step aside.
3. Make sure sanctions are implemented strictly not only by the United States but also by other countries , especially members of the Arab League. Iraq, which has not signed up for them so far as I can tell, should be high on this list. Syrian oil reportedly traversed the Suez Canal recently, contravening sanctions.
4. Use our significant information operations capabilities to ensure that Syria’s dissident voices are heard throughout the country and that the Syrian military and business elite are encouraged to defect from the regime. If we have begun such efforts, they are a deep, dark secret.
5. Work diplomatically to bring the Russians around to the view that their interests in port access and arms sales will be served best by abandoning Bashar. This we are surely doing, but are we ready to offer Moscow a serious quid pro quo?
6. Get Kofi Annan to beef up his request for ceasefire observers to 1000 and help him deploy them quickly, with the capability to move quickly around the country and communicate instantaneously from wherever they are.
7. If the ceasefire fails to take hold by April 15, as now seems likely, return to the UN Security Council to seek a resolution condemning the Assad regime, calling for Bashar to step aside and instituting an arms embargo against the regime.
8. Seek to block arms and money transfers from Iran to Syria, even if there are no formal multilateral restrictions.
9. Prepare for a major post-conflict Arab League peacekeeping mission, which will be necessary to separate the Syrian army and the Free Syria Army and to protect minorities, in particular Allawis, Druze, Christians and others who have supported the Assad regime.
I doubt any of this will work quickly. Bashar al Assad feels he is winning, has started to back away from the Annan ceasefire supposed to go into effect this week, and no doubt hopes to restore his authority, as his father managed to do after killing tens of thousands in Hama in 1982. Splits in the opposition, including a Kurdish walkout, will give him renewed confidence. But the Syrian regime is on the economic ropes and will not be able to eliminate a resistance that is now widespread and broadly (but not universally) supported by the population. We need to hang tough for the long haul, as we did in Burma, making sure time is not on Bashar al Assad’s side.