The world should not be too quick with military intervention
THE violence in Syria appears unstoppable. Outrage over the May 25 massacre at the village of Houla near Homs had no time to cool before another mass killing took place in Al-Qubeir near Hama last Wednesday. The shelling of other protest towns such as Deraa has continued in contravention of a ceasefire brokered by United Nations special envoy Kofi Annan. The international community is nearly unanimous in blaming the government for the atrocities. Damascus, on the other hand, insists that the ruthless murder of innocents, including women and children, was the work of terrorists. Eyewitness accounts and investigations by UN monitors, on the ground under the Annan plan since April, say that the deliberate targeting of civilians was perpetrated mostly by pro-government militias. Annan himself told the UN General Assembly last week that in the waging of peace "the first responsibility lies with the government".
He is right. But as the former UN secretary-general recognises, the regime of President Bashar Assad is not all a tissue of lies. There have in fact been terrorist incidents, with observers noticing a "third force" in the anti-Assad opposition. While fears of "all-out" civil war have been ratcheted up, sectarian conflict is already under way in some parts of the country, between the army and rebels, and between irregulars backed by the government and those supported by its external foes. In the fighting, both sides have shown their rough edges. Western human rights groups have reported on the cruelties inflicted on captured or surrendered soldiers. The UN monitors have been careful to accuse both sides of breaking the truce.
On the whole, that is also Russia's position as it turns its nose up at any UN Security Council proposal that carries even the slightest whiff of military intervention. Both Moscow and Beijing have stood behind Annan's initiative, but object to any move that could lead to regime change by non-Syrian actors. With his six-point peace plan at grave risk, the soft-spoken Annan took on an unusual hardness as he warned that the country could "explode". He said Syria was not Libya, a much smaller theatre whose repercussions could be contained within vast desert borders. A conflagration that spills over into Syria's neighbourhood is more than a possibility, and could as likely occur if Assad is forced out or stays in power by resort to increasingly brutal methods. As awful as doing too little may seem, no better option exists for international involvement at the moment than to pressure both sides equally to negotiate a political settlement.