Overall, however, it is both fair and profoundly unsatisfying to admit that our successes have been partial and the crimes against humanity that persist are devastating. Yesterday, many of us attended an Arria [informal] session, in which we saw graphic photographs taken in Syrian prisons showing the systematic, industrial-style slaughter and forced starvation killings of approximately 11,000 detainees. And those photos were taken in just three of the 50 Syrian-run detention centers, in Syria. And to that we can add the Syrian victims of chemical weapons attacks, the children felled by barrel bombs and those being starved to death in besieged towns and villages, or those executed by terrorist groups. Twenty years from now, how will we reflect on this Council’s failure to help those people? How will we explain Council disunity on Syria twenty years after Rwanda?
—Ambassador Samantha Power, United States Permanent Representative to the United Nations Security Council, April 16, 2014 at a Security Council briefing on the prevention of and fight against genocide.
The disunity of the United Nations Security Council on the issue of mass murder in Syria will be just as easy to explain twenty years from now as it is today: Russia (with the support of China) has no fundamental problem with the murderous survival strategy and associated tactics of its Assad regime client. What will be more difficult to explain is the relative inaction of Western statesmen from whose lips the words “never again” slide effortlessly.
The Obama administration has long blamed the Security Council—and Russia in particular—for the absence of a forceful response to what may well amount to incidents of genocide in Syria. Indeed, the administration has gone so far as to deny categorically that genocide is the issue: that it is merely mass murder, torture, and terror. Yet the principal talking point employed by the Secretary of State, the National Security Advisor, and the Permanent Representative has been one of Security Council failure to stop or at least mitigate slaughter in Syria: failure caused in the main by Russia. To the extent US and European political leaders worry about their legacies, will it suffice twenty years from now to blame their own inaction on Vladimir Putin?
Samantha Power represents the United States with great distinction at the United Nations. She is deeply respected by all of her colleagues there for the same reason she was highly regarded as a White House official during the Obama first term: she works hard, she writes and speaks brilliantly, and she believes in things that are truly important, starting with the inadmissibility of mass murder and the duty of the United States to oppose it effectively.
She has been criticized of late for defending a policy toward Syria that would not stand up to scrutiny by the standards she articulated in her masterpiece: “A Problem from Hell;” America and the Age of Genocide. Those who criticize any serving official for supporting and executing the policy of the president should ask themselves whether or not their country would be better served by that official’s absence. In the case of Samantha Power, those who view with horror and dismay the depredations of the Assad regime should count themselves lucky that such a powerful proponent of humanitarian intervention occupies such a sensitive position. What, after all, is more likely? US policy toward Syria changing substantially by virtue of a nicely crafted op-ed, or through the material efforts of someone who has literally written the book on how the United States responded to mass murder in faraway places during the twentieth century?
In her statement Ambassador Power refers to “graphic photographs taken in Syrian prisons showing the systematic, industrial-style slaughter and forced starvation killings of approximately 11,000 detainees;” photos that “were taken in just three of the 50 Syrian-run detention centers, in Syria.” These photos need to land on the desk of President Barack Obama, if they have not done so already. They may provide the president with his Srebrenica moment: the epiphany almost achieved by last summer’s chemical atrocity. Evidently the Assad regime, not content with merely conducting mass murder, feels constrained to keep detailed records. Although history never repeats itself literally, echoes from the greatest crime the world has ever seen are clearly audible.
Bashar al-Assad and his principal henchman will, for as long they survive politically and physically, be under the shadow of judicial accountability. Those who support the continued rule of the Assad-Makhluf clan in Syria should understand clearly that there is no prospect for that clan’s reconciliation with the West and no positive future for Syria so long as it retains power in any part of the country. The best scenario for Syria or any part thereof under Assad-Makhluf control is to be the North Korea or the Zimbabwe of the Levant.
Security Council disunity on Syria in 2014 is easily explainable now, and the explanation will be no different in 2034: he who seized Crimea and threatens Ukraine, using excuses and tactics drawn directly from a like-minded leader of the 1930s, has no problem with the behavior of a client also mimicking the biggest murderer in human history. The more pertinent question to be asked by historians in 2034 is why taking action consistent with “never again” depended on the consent of Vladimir Putin.
Frederic C. Hof is a resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.