A lot of evasive and weasel words obscure the current debate over what to do about Syria. Meanwhile, people are dying – horrendously, gut-wrenchingly, pitilessly – betrayed by guilt and its lethal consequences: inaction.
“We do not want regime change, we just want the Syrian government to stop killing, maiming, and torturing its own people. After that, all will be well. If the Syrian people choose to indict a man clearly responsible for crimes against humanity, that’s up to them. For our part, as soon as this unfortunate series of events is over, we can get back to normal, return to stability and re-establish political and economic relations.”
These are the real words behind the prevarication and moral backsliding of the so-called “international community”. They are soaked in the guilt of recent and past history. Fresh in everyone’s minds are Iraq and Afghanistan when, having armed and destabilised both countries for decades, the coalition of the good and mighty labelled them rogue nations. The world is still living with the consequences.
Dig down further and we find the accusation that if the powers-that-be of the time had acted sooner and more decisively, Nazi Germany and the Second World War could have been prevented. Naïve, maybe, but only yesterday the Syrian Foreign Minister compared the militant forces that are attacking the legitimate government of his country with Nazi Germany and placed Syria on the side of the coalition of the good trying to prevent them. Weasel words indeed.
Some 22.5 million people live in Syria, a country independent since 1946 and currently run by President Bashar al-Assad, who has been in office since 2000 when he succeeded his father, who had been in power since 1970. The Assad regime had a dubious record before the civil war began. Since then it has carried out deliberate air strikes against civilian targets, and used incendiaries (which often cause severe burns on their targets) and cluster weapons (which are banned under an international convention that most countries, but not Syria, have ratified). The regime is also responsible for hundreds of violent interrogations, arbitrary arrests – including torture and forced disappearances – and summary executions. Then there is the use of chemical weapons.
The rebel forces are also guilty of crimes, but not on the scale of the Assad regime. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented the use of summary killings, hostage-taking and torture, as well as inadequate measures to avoid civilian casualties.
Faced with this terrible situation, what everyone wants – including those fence-sitters Britain, Germany, France and the USA – is regime change. Bashar al-Assad and his cronies must go and a new government must be democratically elected. The immediate problem is how to bring about regime-change and satisfy the competing claims of the people of Syria, the Arab League, Israel, Russia, North Korea (which is suspected of arming the so-called rebels), Europe and the USA.
Armed intervention by coalition forces would be immoral and the likely cause of severe and unforeseeable repercussions. But no stone must be left unturned to find and test every other means to remove the regime and to replace it with a more democratic government. It will be that government’s duty to try Bashar al-Assad and everyone else responsible for crimes against humanity.