By Bijan Mehryar
While the Olympics have been going off without a hitch—minus the awkward snowflake debacle—another type of sport took place in Geneva: diplomatic buck passing. The current round of talks between the United Nations, Russia, the United States, the Syrian government and representatives of the Syrian rebels broke down Saturday night due to alleged obstinacy on the part of the al-Assad regime. Since the last time Prospect covered the crisis last summer, the total number of deaths has ballooned to over 140,000. Meanwhile, the United Nations estimates that more than 6.5 million Syrians have been displaced, with two million fleeing the country. In light of these tragedies, I find myself asking, ‘Why haven’t we put a stop to this?’ It’s not that difficult for the developed world to agree that human rights abuses and crimes against humanity are occurring in Syria, yet the Obama administration’s approach seems to lack both a comprehension of the severity of these events and an appreciation of their regional impact.
The president articulated several red lines, including the use of chemical weapons by government forces, that would supposedly lead to a strong American response. However, when a slew of evidence all but explicitly blamed Syrian government forces for launching a chemical attack, the Obama administration offered no substantive response. All that came out of it was a hastily negotiated move to eradicate Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons. I’m sure Syrians slept easy that night knowing that from now on they only needed to fear artillery shells and bullets.
Thus, time continued to pass with little change. We left the Syrian National Coalition struggling to unify a front battered left and right by an ever-escalating conflict. The inclusion of Islamist insurgents complicates the situation on the ground and threatens to turn the region into a staging ground for terrorists. Yet, we still stand by our muted response. Pursuing diplomacy as a first option should always be a priority, but what good does round after round of diplomatic jawing do to ameliorate the suffering of the Syrian people? How can the United States claim to be an arbiter of justice and human rights when our policies in the Middle East continue to demonstrate a Cold War-era preference for stability over democracy?
Ideals are only good in so far as they do not obstruct the pragmatism necessary to lead the free world. While the president rightly fears the specters of Afghanistan and Iraq, he cannot continue to allow the Syrian quagmire to continue. Doing so risks not only eroding our already weak image in the Middle East but also damages the credibility of this administration’s attempts to reach out to those states going through the transition to democracy.
The failure of the Geneva II talks could have been seen from a mile away, which is why I find Secretary Kerry’s outrage over their failure comical. While military intervention is messy and unpredictable, the Syrian crisis is no longer a simple paper cut that can be fixed with Band-Aid diplomacy. Rather, triage and an emergency medical response are needed to stop the hemorrhaging of innocent blood. The United States and its allies need to realize that strongman figures like Bashar al-Assad only understand strength. It must be made clear to al-Assad that unless a cessation of violence occurs, there will be an answer of force. If not, then what good are these ideals that we seem to care so much about?
Image by FreedomHouse