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Frustration Over Syria

Author: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
June 6, 2012
Folha de Sao Paulo


First published in Portuguese in Folha de Sao Paulo.

The perverse effect of last week's massacre in Houla is to demonstrate how bereft the international community is of solutions to end the Syrian conflict. The moral dimensions of this crisis—tens of thousands more dead in the coming year—are profound and without easy answers. For the last decade I have listened to Washington's pundits rally behind American regime change operations in the Middle East and Persian Gulf. Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Libya, and now Syria prompted the largely illusory notion that American power can rewire the DNA of nations halfway around the world, at a manageable cost. These discussions sound eerily like a steroid version of the debates over Central America in the 1980's. At the time, arming the "contra" in Nicaragua or funding the government's counterinsurgency in El Salvador were at the cutting edge of Cold War national security strategy. It is hard to believe, but those policies once created deep divides in the Congress and in the public at large. The stakes seem much higher today of course: Israel, chemical and nuclear weapons proliferation, al Qaeda.

Not wanting to dismiss the severity of the crisis, and trying to suspend my skepticism about yet another war in the Middle East, I took a tour of Washington's foreign policy blogs for inspiration. I found a loose coalition of humanitarian interventionists and neoconservative hawks with recipes to escalate and then end the Syria conflict. Arm the opposition, deploy air support, apply intelligence, diplomacy, sanctions: these instruments will eventually tip the balance against Assad, with the major strategic benefit of weakening Iran and strengthening Israel. Like the Central America arguments thirty years ago, the proposals come with a combination of moral high ground and hubris—a familiar combination in American history.

The message from the White House and the State Department is far more circumspect, however. Syria's ethnic diversity, density of population, loyalty of the military, weakness of the opposition, lack of Arab league support, and Russia's "propping up" of Assad all combine to make a direct military intervention, led or backed by the United States, untenable. That's the argument for now at least, even as specific humanitarian steps are under consideration.

The ironies cut deep. President Obama recently announced the creation of the Atrocities Prevention Board. The White House website describes an impressive inter-agency plan to institutionalize the concept and practice of atrocity prevention. The design took more than a year to develop and will take years to bear fruit. I wish it were otherwise, but this White House is unlikely to prevent Syria's atrocities.

How about outside of Washington? Can Brazil help when even the major powers are reluctant? This would be a great moment to experiment with the ideas behind President Rousseff's "responsibility while protecting."

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