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The Balkan Lessons for Syria

How many more innocents have to die in Syria before the international community decides to act?

By Aijaz Zaka Syed

As Syria burns and increasingly looks like a giant, towering inferno with its helpless people trapped inside desperately crying out for help, I’ve been wondering:  How would the Muslim world have reacted if the Nero in Damascus wasn’t a Muslim?

Would we still be lolling in our hammocks politely offering our profound but pointless sympathies and moral platitudes? If it had been a ‘heathen’ regime persecuting the believers in Syria, the Muslims would have been out on the streets across the globe, calling for jihad against the Baathist regime and demanding Bashar Assad’s head.

Unfortunately for Syria’s condemned people, Assad and his bloodthirsty brutes pretend to be from amongst us. Just as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi did even as they invented every possible atrocity to torment their people. This is perhaps why the Arabs have largely tolerated the crimes against humanity in Syria, just as they did over those in Sudan’s Darfur.

So even as their own army rains down death and destruction on their homes, all the Syrian people could expect from the fellow Arabs and Muslims is mere lip service and profoundly pointless UN resolutions and peace plans.

But then this is a familiar story across the region. The so-called Arab socialist republics repeatedly prove themselves the worst enemies of their own people. Indeed, in their matter-of-fact, murderous brutality, they are even worse than the Israelis.

Again, unfortunately for the Syrian people, they do not have oil — at least not as much as to rouse the West’s democratic sensibilities. So Uncle Sam and his pals who invented all sorts of rather original pretexts to take out Saddam — and later Qaddafi — insist that time is not right for the “international community to intervene” in Syria yet.

Ten thousand people have been butchered in their homes, entire cities have been razed, hundreds of thousands have fled to neighboring countries and time is still not right?

Clearly, when Western interests clash with Western ideals, ideals lose hands down. And the Western interests apparently lie in the continuance of the hated regime in Damascus. Even Israel that all these years saw Syria as a challenge to its tyranny and hegemony doesn’t want to see the regime collapse, the fear being that the Islamists could replace the Baathists — just as they have in Tunisia, Libya, and appear all set to, in Egypt. This appears to be the sole reason for the uncharacteristic Western reluctance to get too involved in Syria.

God knows I am no fan of Western intervention and there are a million reasons why — from Vietnam to Afghanistan to Iraq. This is no time to go into that all too familiar and sordid history. However, if there’s one country that really and badly needs international intervention, it is Syria.

It is more than a year now since the Syrians came out on the streets, respectfully and rather diffidently demanding a bit of Arab Spring of their own. And look what they have got in return. For the past one year or so, no day has passed without the brave Syrian Army killing the people it is supposed to protect in scores with clinical, dispassionate brutality.

All attempts by the Arab and Muslim countries and international community have failed to rein in the ruthless killers in Damascus. Poor Kofi Annan! The former UN chief known for his soft touch and diplomatic skills, has exhausted himself shuttling between Damascus and world capitals but has gotten nowhere.

Tanks and gunships continue to pound Syrian cities and towns with impunity even as Assad benignly indulges Annan, playing the diplomatic poker game with remarkable seriousness. Clearly, he has drawn no lessons from the fate of Saddam, Qaddafi and other fellow travelers. Or he is confident, like all of them were, that he can get away with murder.

The question is how many innocent people, including women and children, must die before the international community decides enough is enough?

What is the magic number, as the former US ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker forcefully asked this week, at which the world community concludes it is time to act?

Killing of 10,000 civilians not good enough to justify the international action? What is the use of the United Nations and its fine institutions if they cannot stop this endless bloodletting and extermination of a people at the hands of their own government?

It is this diplomatic dithering and lack of courage of the world community that claimed thousands of precious lives in the Balkans, giving the world a new word called “ethnic cleansing.” As Volker recalls, it was the US and European reluctance to rein in the Serbian Army and warlords for more than two years that resulted in the loss of thousands of precious lives in the former Yugoslavia.

It took the catastrophe of Srebrenica in which nearly 10,000 young Muslim boys and men were killed in cold blood with their hands tied behind their backs that shook the world’s conscience.

Under intense pressure from the Arab-Muslim states, including Saudi Arabia, UAE and Pakistan, President Clinton eventually gave the go-ahead for a UN-NATO peace-keeping force led by 20,000 US soldiers.

It was the combined US-NATO air power and the persuasive powers of the late Richard Holbrooke that ended the genocide of the ethnic Albanians and the biggest conflict in the post War Europe. It was without doubt the finest hour of the Clinton administration and the transatlantic alliance.

Interestingly, around the same time, another ethnic conflict was raging in the distant Africa. But by the time the world community woke up and responded to the unprecedented ethnic cleansing in Rwanda, it was already too late.  A staggering number of 800,000 people from the Tutsi community were hacked to pieces by the Hutu majority.

What is going on in Syria is of course very different from what happened in Rwanda or Kosovo and Bosnia Herzegovina.  But those one-sided wars offer vital lessons in dealing with the one in Syria. 

The key lesson is that international action — or lack of it — often proves that critical, vital difference between life and death for thousands.

While I am all for national sovereignty and against the world powers’ tendency to throw their weight around, when thousands of precious lives are at stake, the international community has no option but to act. 

But it must be done under the UN stewardship, not by individual world powers with their respective cliques.

The world needs to act on Syria before it’s too late. It mustn’t wait for another Srebrenica-like atrocity to scramble into action. The Baathists have already demonstrated with deadly effect that they could go to any extent to hold on to power.  They did it before when Hafez Assad sent in the tanks in 1982 to crack down on the Islamists in Hama, killing more than 10,000 people. We will see more such massacres, if his diabolic doctor son isn’t stopped — and soon. Enough of inane international grandstanding and worthless diplomatic games.

— Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Gulf based commentator. Write him at aijaz.syed@hotmail.com

Arab News


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