Syria: The tragic space between the unacceptable and the impossible

Labelling the Houla massacre as a ‘tipping point’ in the uprising is misleading and creates false hope, writes author.

50 of the 108 civilians who died in Houla were children below the age of 10 [Reuters]

Istanbul, Turkey – The Houla Massacre of a week ago in several small Muslim villages near the Syrian city of Homs underscores the tragic circumstances of a civilian vulnerability to brutal violence of a criminal government. Most of the 108 civilians who died in Houla were executed at close range in cold blood, over 50 of whom were children under the age of 10. It is no wonder that the Houla Massacre is being called ‘a tipping point’ in the global response to Syrian violence that started over 15 months ago.

The chilling nature of this vicious attack upon the most innocent among us, young children, seems like a point of no return. What happened in Houla, although still contested, seems confirmed as the mainly the work of the Shabiha, the notorious militia of thugs employed by Damascus to deal cruelly with opposition forces and their supposed supporters. 

This massacre also represents a crude rebuff of UN diplomacy, and the ceasefire its 280 unarmed observers were monitoring since it was put into effect on April 12. In this regard the events in Houla reinforced the impression that the Assad regime was increasingly relying on tactics of depraved criminality and state terror to destroy the movement that has been mounted against it. Such defiance also challenged the UN and the international community to do more when confronted by such evil, or face being further discredited as inept and irrelevant.

Tragedy or tipping point? 

But is not the Syrian situation better understood as a ‘tragic predicament’ rather than presented as a tipping point that is raising false expectation that external initiatives can somehow redeem the situation? What kind of hitherto unimaginable action plan undertaken by the UN or NATO could hope to stop the violence and change the governing structure of Syria for the better?

There has long existed an international consensus that the Syrian response to a popular uprising should be effectively repudiated, but this awareness was coupled with a growing realisation that there were no good options. Even those who supported the Annan Plan in the UN acknowledged from its inception that it was a desperate last resort with almost no chance of succeeding. Cynics claimed that it was accepted by Assad to gain time, and mute outside pressures.

There was a widely shared sentiment at the UN that it was unacceptable to stand back and watch further crimes against humanity take place, something must be done, but what? Remembering the awful failure of the world to stop the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 or the massacres in Srebrenica in 1995, there existed the feeling that the developments in Syria were building up to a comparable humanitarian catastrophe, already more than 10,000 Syrians had died, that must somehow be stopped.

A scarcity of viable solutions 

Diplomacy had been arduously pursued since the outset, originally by Turkey, then the Arab League, and finally by Kofi Annan, the Envoy of the UN Secretary General, each phase with a seeming receptivity in Damascus but clearly without noticeable effects on its violent tactics.

The parties, including Bashar al-Assad sweet talked international emissaries, announced their willingness to stop the killing and other abuses, and even accepted monitoring arrangements, but then before the negotiators had even left the country the two sides resumed their brutal combat as if nothing had happened, and for this, the opposition led by the Syrian Free Army deserves a share of the blame. In effect, diplomacy has been given multiple chances, and continues to be put forward as the only way to make a difference in the conflict, and yet it clearly lacks the capacity to stop the bloodshed and suspend the political struggle for control of the Syrian state.

This naturally turns our attention to more coercive options. Russia has been blamed for preventing stronger action being endorsed by the UN Security Council. Indeed Russia has used its veto to block such initiatives as the imposition of an arms embargo or sanctions on Syria, and is under great pressure to join the current buildup of support for the exertion of increased outside pressure. Amnesty International, for instance, has issued an appeal to the Security Council to call upon the International Criminal Court to issue indictments against the Syrian leadership for their role in the commission of severe crimes against humanity, culminating in the Houla Massacre.

Making matters worse 

Military intervention has been strongly advocated for several months by some irresponsibly belligerent political figures in the United States, most notably by John McCain, but there seems little appetite for such a military undertaking even at the Pentagon, and certainly not according to the court of public opinion. Also Syria has no substantial coveted oil reserves. The logistics and politics surrounding such a proposed intervention in Syria make it an unrealistic option. There is not the political will to mount the sort of major military operation on the ground that would combine regime change with an enforced stability until normalcy could be established by a new national leadership.

Unlike Libya where NATO’s reliance on air power turned the tide decisively, if destructively, in favour of rebel forces, this scenario is viewed as not workable in Syria where there continues to exist more public support for the regime and more substantial military and paramilitary resources at its disposal, especially if it continues to receive assistance from Iran. All in all, the military option would likely make matters worse for the Syrian people, increasing the magnitude of internal violence without having the effect of bringing the conflict to a desirable end.

The dilemma exposes the weakness of empathetic geopolitics in a world that continues to be dominated by territorially supreme sovereign states. In the Syria situation this tragic reality is revealed in all its horror. It is unacceptable in a media wired world where events are reported visually almost as they are occurring, or immediately thereafter, there is no way to avert the gaze of the outside world.

It is morally unacceptable to stand by, watch, and do nothing. But the UN lacks the authority and capability to impose the collective will of international society except when it can mobilise an effective geopolitical consensus as it did in Libya (but by way of deceiving Russia and China as to the scope of the response contemplated by the authorization of force in March of 2011). For reasons explained above, plus the lingering resentment due to the Libyan deception on the part of Russia and China, there has not emerged a geopolitical consensus favouring military intervention, and none is likely. Just as doing nothing is unacceptable, mounting a military intervention is unrealistic, and hence, impossible.

Does a solution exist? 

What is left to fill the gap between the unacceptable and the unrealistic is diplomacy, which has proved to be futile to this point, but hanging on to the slim possibility that it might yet somehow produce positive results, is the only conceivable way forward with respect to the Syrian situation. It is easy to deride Kofi Annan and the frustrations arising from the repeated failures of Damascus to comply with the agreed framework, but it remains impossible to  find preferable alternatives. 

If diplomacy is finally admitted to be a deadend as seems so likely it raises serious questions as to whether in a globalising world the absence of stronger global institutions of a democratic character is not a fatal flaw. Moral awareness without the political capacity to act responsively points up a desperate need for global reform, but the grossly unequal distributions of power and wealth in the world makes such adjustments impossible to make within the foreseeable future. And so the peoples of the world go on living in this tragic space between the unacceptable and the impossible. It will take a miracle to close this gap!

Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has authored and edited numerous publications spanning a period of five decades, most recently editing the volume International Law and the Third World: Reshaping Justice (Routledge, 2008).

He is currently serving his fourth year of a six year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.