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Timothy Garton Ash
Timothy Garton Ash

Timothy Garton Ash

How can the West stop the slaughter in Syria? Add to ...

I hope that one day ex-president Bashar al-Assad will stand before the International Criminal Court charged with crimes against humanity. None of the violence now being used by other forces in what has become Syria's civil war can diminish his primary responsibility.

Remember that this started as a wave of non-violent demonstrations, in the best manner of the original Arab Spring. President al-Assad had the option of responding with significant reforms, which he toyed with; of opening negotiations; or of allowing a peaceful transition, with an honourable, comfortable exit for himself and his family. Instead, he chose to retain power by brutal repression, as his father did before him, including the indiscriminate shelling of civilians. While his elegant, British-educated wife, Asma, trod marbled floors in her Christian Louboutin heels, his soldiers and shabiha militia thugs battered innocent women and children into the dust.

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Syria's popular opposition maintained non-violent discipline for a time, in the face of extreme repression; then it lost it. With defections from the army, and weapons coming in from outside, this became first an armed rising, then a civil war, with an embattled regime, fractured opposition, Alawites, Sunnis and their external supporters, all facing off in a complex, sometimes murky conflict. As well as the massacres of civilians, we now learn, sickeningly, that the army and militia have used children as human shields. Some of the rebels, too, have reportedly recruited under-age soldiers. But as Mr. al-Assad said in a television interview before this all started, the responsibility for what happens in Syria comes back to him.

If the scale of killing and wounding of innocent civilians were the sole necessary condition for humanitarian intervention, Syria has reached that point. But the UN-approved doctrine of the responsibility to protect (R2P), which is the most rigorous and even-handed way we have to think about such challenges in today's world, also requires the action to have a reasonable prospect of success. On an informed judgment of probabilities, a feasible intervention must be more likely to make things better rather than worse in the country concerned.

That condition is, alas, not met in Syria. There are complications and dangers in every intervention, but most experts on Syria, the region and its wider geopolitics point to difficulties significantly larger than in Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone or Libya.

This is not just a question of the size, equipment and training of the forces of repression at the al-Assad regime's disposal, and the regional and sectarian fault lines inside the country. There is also the direct involvement of regional and global powers, which overtly and covertly support different sides in the civil war. Most obviously, Shiite Iran and Putinite Russia are directly sustaining the regime, with its Alawite power base, while Sunni powers such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar are reportedly funding arms for the rebels.

Meanwhile, calls for military intervention grow ever louder in the U.S. Congress and media, though not in the Pentagon, which makes a sober assessment of what that would involve. In Turkey, there is animated discussion of no-fly zones and humanitarian safe havens, but Turkey's leaders have also become more cautious as they work through what that would mean. One step could so easily lead to another; what started as a minimal humanitarian intervention could morph into a messy, long drawn-out partial occupation, or even a kind of war by proxy.

At the same time, the purely political options being canvassed seem either feeble or impossible. Kofi Annan's peace plan is in tatters. Tighter sanctions on the al-Assad family and its henchpersons may mean a dip in online orders for Christian Louboutin shoes; they will not stop a dictator with his back to the wall, fighting to avoid the lynch-death of Moammar Gadhafi. Some suggest an international popular front for peace in Syria, with the United States and Saudi Arabia working hand-in-glove with Iran and Russia. This seems as likely as the Pope announcing his impending marriage to Madonna (the pop star). A more united Syrian opposition, committed to a non-violent, negotiated transition, is a great idea for yesterday and tomorrow, but not a solution for today – in the midst of a civil war.

The Russian position on Syria is shocking, mendacious and indefensible. The Russians have repeatedly blocked efforts to get UN authority for stronger peace-making measures, using hypocritical arguments that barely conceal their own national interest in keeping their military, economic and political foothold in the Middle East. Have they no shame? In the case of Putin's Russia, this question answers itself. Have they no other national interests, which might eventually outweigh this one? Now that is a question worth asking. If we are really serious about our commitment to stopping the slaughter in Syria, we in the West have to consider if there are any larger carrots and sticks we can still show Russia, even at some cost to ourselves, so as to achieve a shift in its position. The road to Damascus goes through Moscow, and Vladimir Putin's conversion will not be worked by any God.

Timothy Garton Ash is a Professor of European Studies at Oxford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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