While the conviction may do little to assuage the continued suffering of the victims of that conflict, it sets an important precedent for world leaders, suggesting that sovereign authority has its limits, and that leaders should consider impunity to be a thing of the past. It would serve Syria’s President, Bashar-al-Assad, to take heed of this fact.
Since beginning in December 2010, the uprisings across the Middle East and North African region have largely subsided. Two leaders — Tunisia’s then-President Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak — have been ousted and put on trial. Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi was killed during the uprising in that country after a short-lived NATO intervention. Other countries have seen political upheaval and have made adjustments accordingly. Yet 14 months after it first began, the conflict in Syria rages as strongly as ever. It seems President Assad has little intention of relinquishing power despite international calls for action and the obvious fact that he has little to claim in terms of legitimacy any longer.
If the international community needed an additional incentive to force Assad from power, it came last week in the form of a massacre in the town of Houla where 108 civilians, mostly women and children, were summarily executed in their own homes. Although Assad claims no connection with those responsible, at best he has once again failed to protect the lives of his citizens, and at worst he is supporting such groups to carry out these atrocities. Meanwhile, the news of this abhorrent act has thrust the Syrian case back into the spotlight, yet indecision persists over suitable action to be taken.
To be sure, military intervention is a tricky business. With it comes a multitude of questions regarding the sovereign rights of a nation or the excessive interference by others. This has resulted in too many instances of delayed response or failure to act at all. In 1994, the international community allowed some 600,000 people to be savagely killed in Rwanda before taking any action (which, even then, was grossly insufficient). Similarly, it took too long for the international community to respond to massacres during the Bosnian War, such as the killing of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica in 1995 (for which Serbia’s Ratko Mladic currently stands trial).
The death toll in Syria is approaching 10,000 by some estimates, and despite the precedent of Libya only a year ago, the international community continues to show hesitation over intervention. The massacre last week prompted the expulsion of Syrian diplomats from no fewer than 12 countries, yet the general sense is that more must be done if Assad is to make changes or step down. It has already become apparent that he has failed to implement the six-point peace plan agreed with UN envoy Kofi Annan, which among other things involves the withdrawal of troops and tanks from the Syrian streets.
As ever, it appears that Russia and China are going to dig their heels in. Both have indicated their characteristic opposition to intervention in Syria and have already vetoed two UN Security Council resolutions aimed at taking action against Assad’s regime. Meanwhile, Russia continues to ship weapons to Syria, one of its largest arms customers, despite calls by other nations for an arms embargo on the country.
Any honest and thoughtful onlooker will admit that there is no simple solution to the Syrian crisis. Regime change is an increasingly unwelcome concept, and intervention in Middle Eastern affairs is seen by many merely as Western neo-imperialism. Meanwhile, there is no credible knowledge of the opposition within the country, raising concerns over the nation’s stability in a post-Assad order. Nevertheless, a leader’s ability to run a country relies either on legitimacy in the people’s eyes or sheer brute force. Since Assad has lost the former, he appears to be deferring to the latter, with no obvious sign of backing down.
Negotiation would probably be the best among several imperfect solutions. Removing Assad altogether in favor of democratic reform could well lead to sectarian conflict or provide a breeding ground for fanatical militant groups. Furthermore, Syria has not known leadership outside of the Assad family for more than 40 years. Any change should be incremental and would require a great deal of external support.
However, a peaceful solution is looking less likely by the day, and Assad’s downfall is looking more and more inevitable. Whether it will come by the hand of the people or from external intervention is yet to be determined, but what is certain is that massacres such as that at Houla last week should serve as a wake-up call to all that inaction simply isn’t an option.