Gravely Syrious


Every time a tiny glimmer of hope arises from the ashes of war-torn Syria, it is swept aside by the harsh reality of the brutal civil war that has claimed the lives of 135,000 Syrians and displaced as many as 9.5 million citizens from their homes.

This past Saturday in Geneva, the second round of peace talks between the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and representatives of opposition forces adjourned without accomplishing any tangible progress towards peace. The fact that the talks took place at all was at first regarded by some diplomats as at least somewhat encouraging. But opposition forces, backed by the United States, insisted that any future transitional or permanent Syrian government cannot keep Assad in power, while the regime’s representative insisted that Assad must stay in power.

Meanwhile, the carnage goes on. Lakhdar Brahimi, a veteran Algerian negotiator for the United Nations, apologized to the Syrian people, saying that on these two rounds, “We haven’t helped them very much.” 

In the first round of the failed talks, the regime and the opposition did agree on one potentially significant and hopeful action: to allow civilians trapped in the city of Homs to evacuate elderly men, and women and children from rebel-held sections of the city, which has been under siege by Syrian regime forces for more than 18 months. Sam Dagher, in a dispatch from Homs in the Feb. 8-9 weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal, described the pathetic scene he witnessed in Homs: “Some were so frail and malnourished they could barely walk. Others had to be carried out on stretchers, and many more were in tears, yearning for loved ones they hadn’t seen for nearly two years.”

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Even after some trapped civilians were allowed to leave besieged sections of Homs, there was a renewal of violence between regime and opposition forces. Aid workers reported being fired upon by both sides and complained that they were not able to complete the rescue because of the renewal of the ever-escalating violence that has reduced the once proud city to a virtual duplicate of a bombed-out city during World War II.

To make matters worse, Syria has repeatedly missed deadlines for complying with its agreement to remove all of its chemical-weapon stockpiles and facilities. According to the U.N., only 4 percent of the regime’s many tons of sarin gas has been removed. The Assad regime seems confident that it can keep stalling the removal of the chemical weapons with impunity, because nothing has been done by the “family of nations” to demand that the removal resume and be completed as promptly as possible.

In another ominous development, Saudi Arabia has agreed to give Syrian rebels mobile anti-aircraft missiles. While this could tip the balance in favor of the rebels, it will in all likelihood lead to expanded military assistance to the Assad regime by its Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah supporters, ensuring that the war will continue to spiral even more out of control.

Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and author of the definitive volume on genocides, has described the bloodshed in Syria as extremely grave and has stressed that it must not be allowed to continue. On their visits to the White House last week, French President Francois Hollande and Jordan’s King Abdullah II urged President Barack Obama to take action to alleviate the bloodshed. In Congress, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said over the weekend that a future president would have to apologize for failing to take action to stop the killing in Syria.

While Russia stepped in as a perceived leader to push the chemical-weapons agreement almost a year ago, it is long past the time to continue to trust that nation as an honest broker in attempting to stop the bloodshed.

If the U.N. is paralyzed by the threat of a Russian-Chinese veto, then NATO powers should step in as they have in Afghanistan and Libya. They should issue a firm ultimatum to Assad that he observe an immediate and total cease-fire, allow food and medicine to be delivered to besieged civilians and begin to allow the 9.5 million Syrians displaced from their homes to return.

If Assad refuses to comply, NATO should be prepared to create an effective no-fly zone to stop as much of the violence as possible. No further bloodshed should be tolerated by the international community, and the time to act is now.