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Serious About Syria

The road to Hama is paved with good intentions

By Eric T. Justin

In 1982, Hafez Assad, the father of Syria’s current president, encircled a few rebelling neighborhoods of Hama, a city in central Syria, and then promptly leveled them. Tens of thousands died along with their revolution. The world responded to this premeditated massacre as it responds today to events in Sudan—there was no response. Thirty years later, Hafez Assad’s son repeats his father’s massacres with different methods. The international profile of the events may have increased, but the results in 2012 are similar to those in 1982. In fact, this last year in Syria demonstrates that although the international world’s bark is louder, its bite is still weak.

Let’s review last week’s events. After groveling in Moscow and Beijing, Kofi Annan pitched his peace plan in Tehran on Wednesday, citing “special relations” between Tehran and Damascus. Any illusions of the trip’s success were shattered by the Iranian Foreign Minister’s insistence that change in Syria occur under the helm of Bashar Assad. Which is, more or less, the exact opposite of the desires of the revolutionaries.

Two days ago, on Apr. 11, the Syrian military and the Free Syrian Army promised to stop fighting per Annan’s peace plan. As of that evening, the ceasefire was “only partially observed,” according to the Syrian National Council, while Syrian state media already reported one “terrorist” attack. Like last week’s ceasefire, this one, too, will be more of an opportunity to reload than an actual stop to the fighting. After all, a ceasefire only works when both sides want to cease firing.

Unfortunately, Annan’s peace plan is not the only one based in good intentions instead of good results. The past year illustrates that the international community has a full arsenal of what can only be described as “passive actions.”

Speaking to the Washington Post two weeks ago, a senior Obama Administration official explained America’s strategy in Syria: “What we’re doing is increasing diplomatic pressure, working on humanitarian access, and pushing the transition forward.” If that language sounds familiar, it is because officials have been reciting that diplomatic mumbo-jumbo for almost a year now. In terms of influencing events in foreign relations, tone is as relevant as the words used themselves. And the tone of American officials hardly incites fear in the Syrian regime.

However, don’t worry about American inaction because the European Union recently extended its sanctions to Asma Assad, the President’s wife. Presumably, there were concerns that her fondue sets and boutique candles were being transformed into torture devices. By the way, after more than a year, and thirteen official rounds of sanctions against the Syrian regime, the European Union has successfully enacted sanctions on exactly four members of the Assad family and eight government ministers. Double digits! Wunderbar!

Economic sanctions are perhaps the most commonly used passive action. First, as I have written before, politicians and pundits dangerously discuss economic sanctions as if all they are all equal. Furthermore, economic sanctions are meant to be a tool of soft power, but soft power is only effective when there is an implied threat of hard power. Without quality control and hard power backing them up, economic sanctions are more liable to destroy people than governments.

Nor is it simply governments that can be accused of systemic passivity, but also international organizations. Paradoxically, the United Nations’ concern for daily abuses of human rights, alongside Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the whole humanitarian behemoth, can in certain instances prevent the long-term realization of human rights. The precise, day-by-day reports on dead and wounded make lowering those numbers the central priority of the international community instead of the realization of revolution itself. It may not be a comforting idea, but revolutions sometimes require violence. And perhaps we have become too inflexible in our opposition to violence.

While the West counts dead bodies, other forces ensure their continued existence. High-ranking defectors from the Syrian military say Iran “has dispatched hundreds of advisers, security officials and intelligence operatives to Syria, along with weapons, money, and electronic surveillance equipment.” The revolution was sectarian from its inception. Any suggestions to the contrary are woefully misguided. The West’s passive role was supposed to have limited the possibility of sectarian violence. But only more active steps can prevent its escalation.

One Syrian activist, Radwen Ziadeh, summed up last week’s events with the title of his editorial in The New Republic, “Why Did Anyone Believe Bashar Al-Assad’s Promises of Ceasefire to Begin With?” Ziadeh never provides an answer to his own question. He can’t. As spokesperson for the Syria National Council, he won’t say what we all know: Current international gullibility is mainly a consequence of international exasperation with a council that is hardly Syrian, barely national, and rarely a council. There are many practical concerns with taking an active step: the Syrian National Council’s discord, the Free Syrian Army’s disorganization, sectarian violence, and so on.

In Syria, there are no good options. However, the worst option is more passivity.

Eric T. Justin ’13, a former Crimson editorial executive, is a social studies concentrator in Currier House. He is spending spring 2012 abroad in Egypt. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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