In February, 1982, Hafez al-Assad ordered his army to besiege and shell the city of Hama in order to quell an uprising so strong that it threatened to overrun his regime. The army followed the orders to a tee and effectively destroyed the city, using a scorched earth tactic that left much of the city lying in rubble and as many as 40,000 dead. The uprising was quelled, and the remaining protesters either fled the country or stopped operations. Hafez al-Assad remained in power until his death in 2000.
History is unfortunately repeating itself. Beginning last weekend, the Syrian army once again encircled a city — this time, Homs — and began a campaign of suppression. This time it is Hafez’s son, Bashar al-Assad, giving the orders. After almost one year of protests asking for democratic change, Bashar has seemingly channeled his father and ordered the destruction of the rebellious city. If reports out of the city are to be believed, that is exactly what is happening, with Syrian snipers picking off citizens who dare to venture outside, tanks targeting civilian buildings, and artillery lobbing shells indiscriminately into the city.
The Syrian uprising is turning into a slaughter. The Free Syrian Army, the opposition military force made up of defected Syrian soldiers and civilians, are not strong enough to challenge the official Syrian forces alone, and — unlike the Libyan rebels, who held Benghazi — those fighting in Syria have no safe haven to retreat to.
The regime in Damascus is likely feeling the pinch as international sanctions are taking its toll on the economy. However, instead of hastening his deposition, the sanctions have likely increased the resolve of Assad to put down the protests. After a suburb of Damascus fell into the hands of the Free Syrian Army, the loyalist Syrian Army was unleashed in a way it had not been before, driving the opposition from the capital and then moving on to Homs. International sanctions have done nothing but push Assad into a corner, and like any wild animal in its situation, he has responded aggressively.
More crucial to the Syrian conflict is the inactivity of the international community. Besides few economic sanctions and strongly-worded statements, no outside country has done anything of substance to stop the slaughter of people. Following the increase of the violence, the UN Security Council scheduled a meeting to vote on a resolution drafted by the Arab League to resolve the conflict. The resolution called for the stop of violence from both sides and a start to the dialogue between the opposing forces. As expected, Russia and China — two countries with strong ties to Syria — vetoed the motion.
That Russia vetoed the resolution was not surprising. Syria is Russia’s last true ally in the Middle East. For a country that had almost half of Middle Eastern countries in their back pockets during the Cold War, the loss of Syria would be a disaster. There are also bellicose reasons for Russia’s decision: the Russian Navy has a base in the Mediterranean city of Tartus. To lose this would mean that a Russian Navy vessel would only be able to enter the Mediterranean from its Black Sea ports through the Bosporus — which would require dependence on Turkey, a country with an increasingly chilly relationship towards Russia.
The reasons for China’s veto are more forward thinking. For the government in Beijing, the open-worded nature of the resolution was similar to the one used in Libya last year, where a mission to protect civilians quickly became a reason to depose Gadhafi. China likely fears that a similar decision in Syria would lead to the foreign deposition of the Assad government — which, swiftly following the demise of Gadhafi, would quickly set a precedent for how to deal with authoritarian rulers. The communist leaders in Beijing are in their own way similar to Gadhafi and Assad, authoritarian rulers who reign with an iron fist and crushing dissent at every turn. The difference is that China is a country whose economy is growing and its people seem satisfied — for now. What will happen when the people demand more liberties, or if the economy stops satisfying its people? Would the Chinese government crack down on protesters as strongly as governments in the Middle East? All evidence shows that it would.
It would be accurate to blame Russia and China for the lack of action and the escalation in violence. However, it is also near-sighted. Western governments, especially the U.S. and those in the European Union, have come rapidly to the defense of the Syrian opposition and condemned the actions of Russia and China, but the responsibility for the blood spilled in Syria rests with every country in the world that can do something. For the international community to be dependent on the Security Council, where these two members are permanent members, or on the Arab League, a group of countries led by despots that would not think twice about doing what Assad is doing, is simply ridiculous.
The world is in danger of witnessing another humanitarian disaster similar to the Rwandan genocide and the human rights violations in the Yugoslavian wars. In both cases, the UN was tasked with resolving the conflict and failed to do so. It has become clear that the UN and other diplomatic means will not work. So if Assad is not willing to listen to diplomacy, it may be time to speak with him in the only way he seems to understand: with force.