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Protesters chant slogans against the Syrian regime and Russia's support of President Bashar Assad as they burn a banner depicting Assad, top, his brother, Maher Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin, bottom, in the southern port city of Sidon, in Lebanon, Sunday, June 17, 2012. (MOHAMMED ZAATARI/AP)
Protesters chant slogans against the Syrian regime and Russia's support of President Bashar Assad as they burn a banner depicting Assad, top, his brother, Maher Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin, bottom, in the southern port city of Sidon, in Lebanon, Sunday, June 17, 2012. (MOHAMMED ZAATARI/AP)

Hugh Segal

We must act now in Syria or pay later Add to ...

It is time to ask ourselves whether Syria will be our generation’s Czechoslovakia.

Syria has not been invaded by a foreign power. But foreign powers and a brutal Syrian military are deeply involved in the killing of thousands. Aside from pious declarations and failed attempts by UN observers, the world stands idly by. Children and mothers massacred, tortured and used as human shields by government forces. The world stands by. Apartment blocks shelled until all are dead. We stand by.

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UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan’s courageous and sincere efforts were used by President Bashar al-Assad to buy more time and kill more people. Armed by Iran and Russia, and protected by UN Security Council vetoes wielded by China and Russia, Mr. al-Assad, his army and armed thugs have become the poster boys for brutal impunity.

Recent U.K. media reports that Russian shipments of arms and jets are in the works only serve to highlight the strategic cost to the West and the Arab League of remaining disengaged. Syria is known as an Iranian client and proxy state that supports regional and global terrorism. The Russians, in a desperate effort to maintain their Syrian naval base and foothold in the region, are beefing up their presence there and implicating themselves more fully in the proxy support system upon which Mr. al-Assad depends.

The Syrian military will have little to fear until NATO and the Arab League declare and enforce a no-fly zone to keep Syrian helicopters from attacking their own civilian population.

Until NATO ships with sea-to-shore missile capacity and helicopter forces patrol off the Syrian coast, and until Syrian command-and-control systems and centres are neutralized, the Syrian army will have no reason to demur from orders that are war crimes in their very transmittal and execution.

Our Turkish allies, Jordanian trade partners and Lebanese friends deserve our logistical and tactical support for the refugee burdens they have embraced or will face. Ceasefire negotiations in Syria cannot start until Mr. al-Assad and his Iranian puppeteers understand that the time frame for impunity has passed.

Promoters of inertia, arguing that the risks of intervention are too high, seem inured to the real risks of their strategy. A victory through the killing of thousands of his own people (an old Assad family tradition) would keep in place a murderous dictatorship that uses terror to stay in power, steals from its people and advances Iranian regional aspirations and Russian geostrategic initiatives at the expense of stability and peace in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel. If the bloodshed continues with no Western or Arab League military presence, the genocidal risk to minorities not aligned with the now more radicalized opposition to Mr. al-Assad increases substantially. And a lack of engagement only increases the potential for a conflagration between the region’s Sunni and Shia populations.

If the UN is paralyzed, that is an institutional issue. If the world uses that paralysis as cover to avoid responsibility, that is a moral issue and a deep abdication.

Allowing the Syrian violence to continue says to all authoritarian and rogue governments that U.S. presidential election years are good times to mow down your own people.

That a Western and hopefully Arab League-led intervention will be hard, complex and messy is a given. Important gestures of humanity and civility usually are.

Standing by and watching is not hard, complex or messy. It is simply criminal.

And it says to Iran, Russia, China and all their client states that there is really no one with the “responsibility to protect” anyone else from atrocities or state-sponsored mass and lethal violence.

And that is how the dogs of war and global violence are truly unleashed – as they were when Czechoslovakia was ceded to the Nazis decades ago without a fight.

From the Middle East to the Indian Ocean, from the South China Sea to the Arabian Gulf and Korean Peninsula, sending a message that the West and its partners will avoid engagements at all cost is the best way to invite adventurism and rogue state aggression.

Syria is the canary in the coal mine of a new cold war. It should remind us all that the price we pay for not acting is often far greater than the actual price of deciding to act in the name of humanity.

Conservative Senator Hugh Segal is a former chair of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee.

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