The plea is not new. Syrians have been calling out to the world for help for months now. Assad’s military machine has rolled, and continues to roll, across Syria, killing more than 5,000 people since May 2011. Civilians have been the primary victims as the Syrian military largely resorts to artillery shelling of cities to indiscriminately strike at what it has termed “foreign terrorists.” What began as a simple demand for political reform from the city of Deraa a few months ago, the Assad regime has now conjured into a delusion of an internationally backed infiltration of the country. Meanwhile, Syria’s closest allies, Iran and Russia, have continued to provide political support and military equipment to Syria while the rest of the world aims only strong words at Damascus.
The United States and the European Union have imposed political and economic sanctions on Syria. Arab and EU nations are expelling Syrian diplomats. The United Nations and the Arab League have held emergency meetings to discuss the situation. Palestinian intellectuals are demanding Syria cease invoking the Palestinian cause in its defense. Even certain Jewish organizations are calling for boycotts of Russian and Chinese products based on their support of Damascus. But, Assad hears only those voices that tell him that he has the right to invoke his rage on his own citizens, and those that put the guns in his hands to do it.
And yet, despite all the bluster, innocent Syrians are dying daily in their homes, in the streets or in the regime’s torture chambers. Possession of medicine and medical supplies is now a crime in many cities and the injured must avoid hospitals or have doctors use false names and diagnoses to hide any involvement in demonstrations. The Syrian Ministry of Defense controls the only blood supply in the country, making surgery and post-operative care very risky.
The idea of military intervention in Syria has been discussed but, so far, not seriously considered. Recently though, in a statement issued following a meeting of the Arab League in Cairo, the organization backed “providing all forms of political and material support” to the Syrian opposition. No clear plan of action has been issued, but a meeting of the “Friends of Syria,” which includes the Arab members of the Gulf Cooperation Council as well as Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia, will be held at the end of February to discuss their options. In the interim, the League is calling on the United Nations to form a peacekeeping mission for Syria, a sign that while rhetoric and supplies may be forthcoming, Syria’s Arab neighbors are not yet ready to join the fight themselves.
Meanwhile, Iraqi security officials are reporting that Sunni insurgents, fresh from sectarian violence in Iraq, may be crossing the border into Syria to join either the Free Syrian Army, or other resistance groups there. Similarly, Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of the al-Qaeda terror network, recently issued a statement urging Muslims in neighboring countries to join in the fight against Assad. U.S. intelligence sources say that al-Qaeda may already be operating in the country, citing recent bombings in Damascus and Aleppo.
The United States has said it will not arm Syrian opposition forces. British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has spoken against the idea of “Western boots” on the ground in Syria. Russia has promised to block any UN approval of a NATO air mission similar to what was approved for Libya in 2011. Many UN members have argued against a peacekeeping mission, as there is currently no peace to be kept. But, if the Arab League, or certain of its members, go ahead and arm the Free Syrian Army (FSA), there is a real concern that Syria will plunge into a civil war. There is also further concern that Syria could become a proxy war between NATO and Russia. What steps remain then to protect the people of Syria?
Any question of Assad continuing to rule Syria is moot. After ordering his military to fire indiscriminately on civilian targets, he has forfeited any vestige of being a leader. Russia and China should immediately use their leverage to convince him to turn over power to a non-Ba'ath (or non-Assad) controlled caretaker government. The Arab League, in coordination with the UN, must broker the creation of such a caretaker government for Syria consisting of members of the Syrian National Council, the domestic Local Coordination Committees and non-regime leaders.
Unlike the Libya situation, this interim government must remain in place to help effect a transition of power to a freely elected parliament and President, as well as the creation of a true constitution for Syria. Significant international assistance will be necessary to prevent a breakdown into fighting among militias or elements of the FSA. Use of the "fire and forget" mentality in Libya was "to the detriment of the country, it's neighbors and to the West's ostensible interests in regional security and stopping human rights abuses," argues Arabist writer Paul Mutter.
The United States and its NATO allies should immediately begin the provision of humanitarian and medical assistance, using Turkey as a conduit into the country. Turkish and Arab military forces (in the absence of a UN peacekeeping force) should create safe corridors for refugees and the wounded to seek safety and treatment in Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan until the International Red Cross and Red Crescent society can establish and secure medical treatment facilities in Syria’s major urban centers.
First, of course, the Syrian military must immediately cease the use of force against Homs and other urban centers. Assad has promised this several times in the last few months, but it now becomes vital that Moscow put immediate pressure on Damascus to quiet the guns. Otherwise, joint Turkish/Arab military air strikes should be executed, with logistical and intelligence support from NATO, to force the Syrian army back from the cities it has surrounded. Similar to strikes on Serbia in 1999, this military action should be taken with or without the support of Russia and China. Both nations have innocent Syrian blood on their hands and have lost the right to argue in Assad’s defense any longer.
It is time for the nightmare of the Syria people to end. All the talking has been done. Syria is crying out in pain, and it is time for the world to answer.By Ted Graham, Aslan Media Columnist