'We Are Dying And the World Is Watching'

As Turkey’s foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu visited one of the impromptu refugee camps that have cropped up along the border with Syria, refugee children held up a cardboard sign that pretty much says it all: “We are dying and the world is watching.” More than 1,400 people have been killed since the regime of Bashar al-Assad began its brutal clampdown on dissent in Syria; thousands have been driven from their homes and, according to some reports, one city razed; in Syria the Arab Spring may be coming to a bloody conclusion.

Many nations have condemned the brutal crackdown, and there is movement for a further condemnation by the United Nations of the increasingly isolated Assad government. But a more vigorous global response to the violence does not appear likely. The principle of international responsibility to protect defenseless civilians from their own governments has already been called into play in Libya, draining international resources and fortitude.

Naomi Kikoler, senior advisor at New York’s Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, did not anticipate any major military intervention in Syria. She noted, however, that the global community had other options it could put to use in an effort to stop the violence. Last week, for instance, the Obama administration was considering economic sanctions on Syria and discussing whether President Assad could be accused of war crimes. Whether or not the “third pillar” of the responsibility to protect, the military option, was practical, “what’s important now,” said Kikoler, “is the Security Council’s failure to condemn the Assad regime.” She complained that a draft resolution circulating on June 17 condemning Syria’s actions against its own citizens had been “substantially watered down.” Two Security Council member states, Russia and China, were continuing obstacles to an effective U.N. condemnation, but Kikoler said it had also proved difficult to convince Brazil and India to take a harder line.

Kikoler said that judging by reports emerging from Syrian communities devastated by army reprisals, the Assad regime appeared guilty of crimes against humanity. She suggested that a firmer international stance now could put the Assads and their supporters on notice about the possible future repercussions of their acts. That might discourage further bloodshed.

Kikoler worried that some nations were drawing an unintended lesson from the air campaign over Libya, inspired by the responsibility to protect, that is now dragging on far longer than N.A.T.O. strategists had anticipated and is proving a serious drain on European military resources. “What is the end game in Libya?” she asked. The campaign “has exposed a lot of questions and created a lot of misgivings” about what it means to accept the implications of an R2P commitment, at least militarily.

But another reason for hesitancy in responding to the Syria crisis is worry about what comes next. “Even amongst those who support [a stronger U.N.] resolution,” she said, “I sense that people still have a lot of concerns about what a Syria post-Assad would look like.”

While the West recoils from the persisting outrages committed by forces loyal to the Assad clan, the Chaldean Catholic Bishop of Aleppo, Syria, a Jesuit, defended the regime on June 13. The Syrian government must resist the “uprising,” said Bishop Antoine Audo. In quelling forces of “destabilization and Islamization,” he said, it has the people’s backing.

Like church leaders caught off guard in other nations affected by the Arab Spring, Bishop Audo worries about the outcome of all the social upheaval and the possibility of ethnic and religious-based reprisals in the aftermath of a presumed regime collapse, preferring the devil he knows in Assad to whatever religious furies might be unleashed by a widespread destabilization of Syria. “The fanatics speak about freedom and democracy for Syria, but this is not their goal,” he said; “They want to divide the Arab countries, control them, seize petrol and sell arms. They seek destabilization and Islamization.... Syria must resist—will resist. Eighty percent of the people are behind the government, as are all the Christians.”

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