Syria: Moving Beyond the “International Community”

Opinion Articles

The March 31 Kuwait City words of the US Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Samantha Power, to the Third International Humanitarian Pledging Conference for Syria, were powerful and direct. “If our objective is not only to help Syrians today—but to ensure that, a year from now, we are not rattling off even higher numbers of people in need, even more of whom the regime prevents us from reaching—the international community must recognize that this is not merely a conflict that affects civilians. It is a war waged by an Assad regime that deliberately targets civilians, and seems to make choices on the basis of how best to increase human suffering.” Still, the thought itself and the evident, heart-felt sincerity in which it was expressed were operationally undermined by three words: “the international community.” So long as the protection of Syrian civilians depends on the “international community” they will remain essentially unprotected.

Ambassador Power offered an example: “Providing more aid is not enough—we must ensure that the Assad regime stops blocking and delaying it. Consider interagency convoys, which aim to reach the hardest-hit areas and most isolated places. This year the regime has denied thirty of the United Nations’ thirty-three requests for such convoys, despite the UN Security Council Resolution mandating such deliveries. This cannot be allowed to go on.” Agreed, but who exactly will take responsibility for saving and protecting human beings? Shall we wait for Tehran and Moscow to issue the requisite instructions to their client? If so, patience will have to be literally infinite.

Indeed, Samantha Power used strong language to condemn “certain governments” whose support of Bashar al-Assad has made them “partners in the regime’s atrocities.” Although she did not name Iran and Russia, governments that “have provided the helicopters and weapons the regime uses to attack civilians” narrow quickly down to two. One of them “vetoed a Security Council resolution that would have referred the orchestrators of mass atrocities to the International Criminal Court.” She was not likely referring to China.

So for the purposes of civilian protection in Syria, the most salient, influential members of the “international community” are Iran and Russia—“partners in the regime’s atrocities.” When two such countries actively and knowingly facilitate war crimes and crimes against humanity and still their consent is required for the “international community” to rescue millions of human beings, what does it say about the utility of that so-called “community?” One can read the remarkably compassionate and eloquent words of Samantha Power about the heroic efforts of Syrian doctors and nurses who simply refuse to stop trying to save lives and yet feel all the more ashamed that the United States and its partners have chosen to make Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, and Ali Khamenei the ultimate arbiters of who lives and who dies in Syria. For millions of Syrians this is the only “international community” that truly counts: Assad, Putin, and Khamenei.

Indeed, one wonders how the perpetrator-in-chief—Bashar al-Assad—processes the strong and moving language employed in Kuwait City. On the one hand, Ambassador Power delivered bad news to his defenders and apologists in the United States and around the world: “But we must remember that the dramatic rise of ISIL and other terrorist groups in Syria would never have been possible without the Assad regime’s atrocities, which continue to be ISIL’s best recruiting tool. Partnering with Assad will not help us defeat ISIL—it will only make ISIL stronger.” Indeed, “As President Obama has repeatedly said, the only viable political solution is one without Assad in power.”

Yet Assad stays in place. He is where he is because Iran and Russia have interpreted the Western mantra about “no military solution for Syria” as a green light to seek a military solution of their own, one relying heavily on terror operations against civilian populations. Is it any wonder, therefore, that Assad will read the words, “The only way out of this escalating spiral of violence is a political solution,” and say to himself, “I am home free. If the West can produce such a damning indictment, cry out for a political solution, but then leave enforcement effectively in the hands of Tehran and Moscow, I have not a thing to worry about.”

In the words of another excellent speaker—Secretary of State John Kerry—Assad’s calculation needs to change. Yet it cannot change if the positive role of the “international community” is only to raise money to deal with the horrific consequences of mass murder. Even here the community of nations in Kuwait fell woefully short of meeting the United Nations goal of $8.4 billion for Syrian humanitarian relief. The United States, European Union, and Kuwait each added roughly $500 million to the relief fund, but the total raised—$3.8 billion—perhaps reflects the unearned fatigue of would-be donors who have done little to date and who see no conceivable end to a humanitarian abomination.

More to the point, however, the calculation of the Assad regime with respect to genuine political transition negotiations will not change as long as the United States and its partners defer and grant a veto to an “international community” which, in the Syrian context, boils down to Assad, Putin, and Khamenei. The regime and those who choose to be “partners in the regime’s atrocities” should not be the ones to decide that the Syrian people will remain unprotected from those who “deliberately target civilians” and “make choices on the basis of how best to increase human suffering.” 

Samantha Power spoke the truth when she said “For all that Assad has taken away from the Syrian people during this conflict, he has not been able to extinguish their deepest, most noble human longing: to save a life.” One wonders, however, how much he has successfully extracted from the “international community” and what he has been able to extinguish among those in that community who could have acted to save lives and still might. 

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