Issuing resolutions of condemnation and expelling diplomats may make the international community feel as if it is taking strong action to stanch the bloodshed in Syria. But after 14 months of violence leading to the deaths of at least 13,000 people, increasing accounts of atrocities and a swelling refugee crisis, it is clear Syrian President Bashar Assad and his allies are unrepentant and determined to cling to power at any cost. The United States and its allies have a moral obligation to step up the pressure and demand more help from Syria allies such as Russia and China to stop the carnage.
Former President Bill Clinton has noted his most profound disappointment in office was his failure to intervene quicker in the 1994 Rwandan genocide in which 800,000 Tutsis were murdered by Hutu armed militias. President Barack Obama cited that example as one reason to militarily support the Arab Spring uprising against Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. With the massacre of 108 civilians, more than half them children, in the Syrian city of Houla at the hands of progovernment militia forces over weekend, U.N. resolutions are not enough.
Syria is not Libya. The oppressive Assad regime represents an entirely different set of challenges and options for the Obama administration and the international community. Among them:
• Arming the rebel movement. With a Syrian army of about 300,000 well-equipped soldiers, arming insurgents risks more widespread violence and acts of retribution. The ideological and political make-up of the opposition leadership remains murky at best, and Obama has reasonably rejected that option.
• International military intervention. With the United States winding down two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the rest of world struggling to deal with its own economic travails, there is little appetite for another invasion.
• Instituting a no-fly zone. Given Syria's military strength and technical capabilities, as well as its rugged topography, implementing a no-fly zone poses logistical obstacles but may be more palatable.
The best hope is for Obama to draw Russia and China into embracing the role of peacemaker. The president needs to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin that he should not be seen as Syria's arms merchant but as a facilitator of a cease-fire. Obama also should impress upon China that its standing in the world would be enhanced by playing a more active role in negotiating a peaceful resolution in Syria.
The ultimate diplomatic resolution to the Syrian crisis will not be easy, or without its own inherent complexities. It will be messy and imperfect. But it must begin with a recognition by Moscow, Beijing and Washington that they share a security interest in containing this civil war.