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Monday, June 13, 2011
U.S. awaits world support to step in on Syrian strife
Syrian President Bashar "Butcher" Assad
Each day brings more atrocities in Syria. Fears of an imminent massacre by the regime has led thousands of refugees to flee into Turkey over the past few days. Yet the international community has been reluctant to outright demand that Syrian President Bashar Assad step down.
Daniel Kurtzer, who has served as U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel and now heads Middle East policy studies at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at PrincetonUniversity, spoke with editorial writer Julie O’Connor about why our ambiguous role in Libya has prevented stronger action in Syria.
Q. It was the fear of atrocities that led the West to intervene in Libya. Yet in Syria, where there’s already substantial evidence of civilian killings and torture, we’ve held back. Why this caution?
A. There are still significant holes in the analysis and policy underpinning what we’re doing in Libya. We intervened there on the basis of a vague notion, an international law called the Responsibility to Protect. But it’s very unclear what that means in practical terms. In Libya, we’re using it as a cover to support the rebels and oppose the regime, and in some ways, we’re using it for regime change — which is not actually what it’s supposed to represent. Given these uncertainties, there’s also going to be uncertainty about starting down that road in Syria. There’s been much greater difficulty in bringing about an international consensus to act.
The idea that civilians were being targeted by the regime, especially in Benghazi, was clearly a major factor in our intervention in Libya. The problem is, what do you do after you’ve protected that population? Do you then stop, or do you proceed?
Q. Do you believe the situation in Syria demonstrates the limitations of U.S. power?
A. I think it demonstrates the limitations of operating on the basis of this Responsibility to Protect. It’s not just U.S. policy; it’s a much larger question. If there’s something called a Responsibility to Protect, does it only extend to cases in which you can have an international consensus? Does it allow for the U.S. to act unilaterally? And is it wise to do so?
Q. Some say Turkey’s alliance with Syria’s protestors may lead Washington and the West to take a more assertive stance on Assad. Do you think that will happen?
A. It’s hard to tell. Turkey abstained on the United Nations Security Council’s resolution that authorized the use of force in Libya. While Turkey did not block NATO from acting in Libya, it certainly was not happy about it. The difference now may be the severity of what’s happening in Syria. Also, there’s an immediate impact on Turkey, from Syrian refugees crossing the border. If the Turks are now as concerned as we are about what’s going on in Syria, it may build on our NATO alliance and lead us to join forces in a way that’s helpful in relation to Syria.
Q. The U.S. and much of Europe have asked the United Nations Security Council to condemn the regime’s attacks, suggesting they amount to crimes against humanity. Is that likely to pass? What effect would it have?
A. I don’t know if it will pass, but it seems to have the support of a number of council members already. It may not stop Syria, but it certainly has an impact. Syria is a member of the international community and is concerned with public opinion, and may see this as the first step toward stronger sanctions and actions.
Q. Why not call for military action?
A. I think the U.S. is being careful about saying anything about military actions until we can build international support for it.
Q. Human Rights Watch recently came out with a report recounting Syrian war crimes, many against children. What has been the impact of the regime’s killings of children like 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib, whose body showed signs of torture?
A. I think it’s played a tremendous role in eroding any kind of potential sympathy for the regime. It certainly burst the balloon of people’s beliefs that Assad was somehow a different kind of dictator, a benevolent dictator. Nobody should have believed it, and certainly nobody believes it now.
Q. How likely do you think it is a repeat of the infamous 1982 Hama massacre ordered by Assad’s father, which killed tens of thousands?
A. It’s quite possible. The Syrian government is showing no restraint, and it’s only a question of magnitude. If they have to kill a lot of people, they will. They’re showing no reason to suggest otherwise.
Q. Assad paints a picture of a bloody sectarian war developing out of this uprising if he falls from power. What are the chances of that?
A. I think it’s unlikely. He’s using it as an excuse, 100 percent. It’s a classic that goes back 300 years, to the French Revolution: “Après moi, le déluge,” meaning “After me, the flood.” That’s what French King Louis XV argued. It’s a false argument always used by dictators to justify continued repression.