President Obama has said that it would be a “mistake” to intervene in Syria at this time. But he has directed the Pentagon to deliver a “commander’s assessment” of what kinds of missions with which the military might be tasked and what resources would be required to meet the demands of those missions. There has been little stomach in the international community to even discuss armed intervention, but some military analysts suggest that a coalition could establish “no kill zones” in addition to “no fly zones” and “humanitarian corridors” that would protect civilians.
As Aaron David Miller, writing in Foreign Policy notes, each of these ideas represent “an open-ended, ill-advised slide to deeper military involvement without any rigorous calculations of the costs.” While there have been calls to arm the FSA from some Gulf states, most observers believe without knowing more about the rebel army, there is no telling whose hands those arms will end up in. British Foreign Secretary William Hague cautions that it is possible the international community would be arming al-Qaeda in Syria. Responding to a query about arms going to al-Qaeda, Hague said, “That is a consideration in trying to provide practical assistance, it is one of the difficulties we have.” He added, “The opposition has not formed a united group.”
And that’s why even the non-military aid proposed by Secretary Panetta and others also carries risks. The Secretary was suggesting we send communications equipment and other non-lethal supplies to the rebels. But with the Syrian opposition disorganized, quarreling, and disconnected from the young activists who are running the street protests, it’s hard to see how that aid could be put to good use. Rivalries in the Free Syrian Army between commanders, as well as factions in the civilian opposition, would almost certainly fight over any aid that was given, thus fracturing the anti-Assad forces even further.
While the debate continues at the UN and in various capitals around the world, the horrific nature of Assad’s assault on Homs is just beginning to become known. UN aid workers entered the smashed neighborhood of Baba Amr but there was nobody to help; the sprawling neighborhood where the FSA held out for two weeks against Assad’s tanks and artillery was deserted.
Refugees entering Lebanon have related tales of massacres and atrocities at the hands of Assad’s security forces. One woman told the story of her 12-year-old son being rounded up with 36 other men the day after the FSA retreated. “His throat was cut,” she told the BBC. Another town near Homs was besieged and more than 40 men and boys were arrested, tortured, and summarily executed.
But it was at a military hospital in Homs where smuggled video showed the truly inhuman nature of Assad’s crackdown. The BBC reports on the video, taken by a hospital employee recently:
The footage…shows wards full of wounded men, blindfolded and shackled to their beds.
Some appear to bear marks of extreme beating, and the hospital employee said many patients were whipped and beaten in their beds.
No one questions that Assad’s crackdown is brutal and that his forces have committed war crimes. This may be one reason why 4 more brigadier generals have defected to the rebels. If some of Assad’s commanders can see the end of the regime, they may wish to avoid trials at the Hague for committing crimes against humanity and, like some Nazi generals at the end of World War II, try to establish a record that might mitigate any penalties that would be assessed against them.
It is doubtful that their actions will save them if they have been a part of this atrocity. And with the bloodshed likely to get worse before it gets better, pressure will continue to build on the UN, NATO, and especially the United States, to intervene in order to protect the innocent. In an election year, with a possible conflict with Iran on the horizon, and the winding down of the war in Afghanistan, would president Obama commit American troops to another mission in the Middle East — presumably after getting “permission” from the UN to do so — with the potential down side far outweighing whatever good we could do?
If he does, it is likely that Congress won’t have anything to say about it.
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