Will Barack Obama Help Syria?

By Lloyd Axworthy and Allan Rock

Now that the U.S. Election is over…

While post-election attention focuses on the looming battle between President Obama and congressional Republicans about the fiscal cliff, it is important also to remember the abyss in Syria. Thousands are being killed every month. The UN predicts four million will be in need of humanitarian aid by next year. Over 400,000 refugees are overwhelming the bordering states. Perhaps most ominously, Israel and the Syrian government are beginning to trade salvos in the Golan Heights — all a consequence of a vicious civil war that the international community has, through its failure to act, allowed to become a threat to regional peace and security.

Daily bombing of civilian neighbourhoods, deadly sniper attacks and summary executions have become the norm in Syria. This is a war without obvious end where most of the casualties are innocent people, not combatants.

“It is time that Barack Obama is asked to show the leadership needed if we are to end the slaughter and stop the cross-border spread of violence that threatens the whole region.”

What was once a spontaneous uprising for democracy has now deteriorated into a nasty power struggle. It appears that “the rebels” (which are actually a composite of Syrian and foreign elements), are now, like the government they want to overthrow, committing war crimes and violating human rights. Although the anti-government forces have recently reached agreement to unify, it remains to be seen whether a group of such rivals can remain united for long. Ominously, the voices of women — among the first to be raised against the tyranny of Assad — are now being ignored in the incipient rebel opposition councils.

It didn’t need to come to this. Indeed, the international community had begun making progress in protecting civilians from rapacious governments. But in the case of Syria, with deadlock at the Security Council, America distracted by elections and Europe consumed with fiscal woes, the spiral has been left to accelerate downwards.

The U.S. has now re-elected a president who understands the priority of protecting civilians. He expressed it in his previous foreign policy statements and demonstrated it in Libya.

It is time that Barack Obama is asked to show the leadership needed if we are to end the slaughter and stop the cross-border spread of violence that threatens the whole region. With his new mandate, he is the only international figure with enough clout to rally support for the robust measures that are needed.

The United Nations, of course, has the primary mandate: the preservation of international peace and security is the first obligation of the Security Council. The Council must also meet the responsibility to protect civilians from mass atrocity, a responsibility assumed unanimously by member states in 2005 and exercised recently in Libya.

We understand that Syria is a very different and a more complex challenge than Libya ever was, but that cannot be an excuse for inaction. There is scope for protection measures even if the Security Council remains paralyzed by the immoral Russian/Chinese veto. In such a case, the U.S. should lead by working with like-minded countries to do what is possible within the law. David Cameron has already expressed an interest in partnering with Obama to make Syria a priority, and Canada should join them.

Such a partnership should work closely with regional neighbours, mainly Turkey, but also Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and ask that they contribute the necessary resources. It is past time for a major humanitarian effort through protected zones on the borders and in the refugee camps.

And yes, the Security Council should be asked anew to exercise its authority. Every diplomatic and political effort should be made to persuade Russia and China to withhold their vetoes. This would not be a call for storming the shores with the Marines, or embarking on a bombing campaign. But certainly a “no fly zone” should now be actively considered, along with other measures such as a reference to the International Criminal Court.

If the newly re-elected U.S president is ready to pursue a leadership role, it doesn’t mean that America must be front and center in its actual implementation. As Libya proved, progress can be made through partnership, with many other governments actively contributing to the cause. But above all, addressing the security and humanitarian threats in Syria must be at the heart of any new American foreign policy agenda.

Canada can have an important role in this partnership. Stephen Harper has made recent and laudable efforts to influence Russia to step back from obstructing peace in Syria. But words need to be followed up by actions, and Canada’s more active engagement can make a real difference to the shared cause.

The “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine was intended to move the international community beyond ad hoc interventions towards a more principled and predictable approach — with the primary focus on the security of civilians. After success in Libya, Syria represents a step back to our old ways. It is time to refocus and re-energize international protection efforts under the aegis of the newly re-elected President of the United States.

This post first appeared on the The Huffington Post Canada website on November 14, 2012.

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