My Twitterfeed this morning is full of references to a video of Syria’s thugs finishing off rebels with knives and concrete blocks. Fortunately for you, the video did not work for me, so I am not even tempted to post it.
The behavior is, however, worth noting, as it is precisely what makes revenge killing highly likely. How would you feel if one of Asad’s thugs bludgeoned to death your brother, uncle, cousin? Of course you might not know precisely who did it, but you might suspect, or you might know someone working for the Shabiha whom you suspect of doing such things, or you might just feel someone needs to be taught a lesson. If a law and order vacuum follows the fall of Asad, it will be tempting to teach these people a lesson, prevent them from disappearing into the woodwork, or just satisfy the thirst for justice. Once it starts, tit for tat violence is difficult to stop. Police are no longer on the streets, courts have ceased to function as judges flee, prosecutors are seek refuge from infuriated relatives of people they sent to prison.
Most of the Syrian opposition will say it does not seek revenge. They will proclaim loudly that anyone who does not have Syrian blood on their hands can remain in their jobs and continue to provide public services. We have nothing against the Syrian state, they will say, only against those individuals who abused power and mistreated its citizens.
But who does not have Syrian blood on their hands? How do they prove it? It is notoriously difficult to prove a negative, and very hard to respond to accusations outside the neutral space of a serious justice system. It will take years to determine who was responsible for the killing of 45,000 or so opposition victims. Why should perpetrators be allowed to get away with their crimes in the meanwhile?
These are some of the issues that lead me to conclude that Syria is going to need an international peacekeeping force to prevent the worst from happening after the fall of the Asad regime. Such a force cannot bring justice or prevent all abuses, but it can–properly mandated, resourced and led–create what the military refers to as a “safe and secure environment,” provided the warring parties reach at least a temporary political accommodation against further bloodshed. There will still be incidents and reprisals, but if they can be kept below the level of mass atrocity it will give Syria a much better chance to move in a more democratic direction.
A commenter on a previous post suggested Indonesia and Malaysia might be able to contribute several thousand troops. That’s a start, though it seems likely Syria will require tens of thousands. The UN and Arab League–the two most likely leaders of such a peacekeeping force–should be developing the plans, not only for the peacekeeping forces but also for meeting other urgent requirements: humanitarian relief (food, water, shelter and sanitation), macroeconomic stabilization to prevent the currency from collapsing altogether, and support to whatever political process the Syrians can agree on.
America’s luminaries are still focused on a no-fly zone and arms for the rebels. We are past the point where either makes much sense. The rebels have obtained sufficient arms to contest the Syrian security forces throughout most of the country, and they are quickly downing most of the Syrian air force. The death toll is way up–around 400 per day recently–as Asad unleashes what little he has left that he hasn’t already used. I’ve got to hope that UN Envoy Brahimi is successful in getting the Russians to pressure Asad to step aside. Nothing short of that will open the door to a negotiated outcome, which is far more likely to reduce the death toll than continuation of the fighting.
War is deadly, but post-war can be deadly too. It is time to be thinking about how to end this war and begin the peace in an orderly way.