Syria: Time To Review the Bidding

Well first of all, David, this is not a genocide. It’s a horrific civil war that has spilled over and infused the neighboring states. It’s one that we have worked very hard to end, through support to the opposition, through humanitarian assistance, through active and aggressive diplomacy. And David, we have every interest in trying to bring this conflict to a conclusion.

But if the alternative here is to intervene with American boots on the ground, as some have argued, I think that the judgment the United States has made and the President of the United States has made is that is not in the United States’ interests. We are very much committed to trying to work to resolve this conflict, but in a way that doesn’t insert the United States back into a hot, bloody conflict in the middle of the Middle East.

        —National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Meet the Press, February 23, 2014.

Ambassador Rice has already been chastised by The Washington Post‘s Richard Cohen (“Susan Rice and the Retreat of American Power,” March 24, 2014) for attributing advocacy of “American boots on the ground” to “some” critics of the Obama administration’s Syria policy. In fact no one is arguing that the United States invade and occupy Syria: no one. There is no point in trying to improve on Mr. Cohen’s critique of the Rice performance. Still, a question occurs: why? Why is it necessary to mischaracterize, quite deliberately, the views of those who offer Syria policy alternatives?

Perhaps the administration—notwithstanding—the Geneva II disappointment—simply does not wish to exert itself on Syria. Actual alternatives tabled—working with the opposition to establish a recognized alternate government on Syrian soil, providing meaningful lethal assistance to nationalists willing to fight both the regime and al-Qaeda, persuading Iran to curb its client’s criminality, considering airstrikes on regime delivery systems that make mass murder and wholesale terror daily occurrences—do indeed require commitment, diligence, and old-fashioned heavy lifting. No doubt it is easier to write checks for humanitarian assistance, count on the Russians (of all people) to ease their client offstage (also known as “aggressive diplomacy”), and simply accuse those with different views of wanting to “insert the United States back into a hot, bloody conflict in the middle of the Middle East.”

Likewise, it seems to be important to Ambassador Rice to deny the presence of any genocidal content in the Syrian conflict. Obviously the administration does not wish to stand accused of converting “never again” to “maybe this once.” Yet is this denial valid? A key question is whether or not the Assad regime intends to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group in Syria.

On the one hand, the regime does not seem to be intent on killing, starving, terrorizing, and torturing all of Syria’s Arab Sunni Muslims. Indeed, there are Sunnis who continue to support the regime. Yet there are also documented instances of regime auxiliaries—shabiha—going door-to-door through Sunni villages, murdering, raping, and pillaging in a comprehensive manner. What about starvation sieges of neighborhoods that are heavily, if not exclusively, Sunni in composition? What about indiscriminate bombing and indirect fire (artillery, rocket, mortar, missile) attacks on densely populated, overwhelmingly Sunni urban areas? Is it inconceivable that regime leaders and operatives consider some Sunni-populated areas to be rebel-infested free-fire zones, places where it matters not how many civilians, regardless of age or gender, are killed and maimed? Indeed, it is possible and even likely that some of these leaders and operatives are motivated by sectarian considerations and do intend to destroy, at least in part and in specific places, populations of a particular sectarian identity: people they deem deserving of punishment and elimination. That would be genocide.

Still, perhaps the safest thing to say in the Syrian context is that genocidal intent is in the mind of the perpetrator, and is therefore difficult at present to prove. What is clear, however, is that the artificially, misleadingly even-handed “It’s a horrific civil war that has spilled over” formulation is neither adequate nor accurate when it comes to describing the prime cause of the humanitarian abomination that has unfolded in Syria. Samantha Power, in A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide captures the real alternative to genocide in a Syria-like case quite well: “If the perpetrator did not target a national, ethnic, or religious group as such, then killings would constitute mass homicide, not genocide.”

Indeed, Susan Rice could have said, “Well David, although there may be things in Syria that are genocidal in nature, what we know for sure is that the Assad regime is fully engaged in mass homicide.” Instead, the word genocide was countered with civil war; or as President Barack Obama has put it, “Someone else’s civil war.” The implication is that competing chefs have conspired to produce a horrific recipe poisoning one and all, and that the best the United States can do under the circumstances is to hand out Imodium to all who have partaken. The alternative—to admit that mass homicide is the least that is happening—is to invite suggestions to do something about it.

Secretary of State John Kerry, Ambassador Samantha Power, and other senior administration officials have not shied away from the truth: at a minimum the Assad regime is engaged in mass homicide. Neither have senior officials made a habit of accusing critics of counseling invasion and occupation.

It is understandable that there is sensitivity at the top to criticism and a strong temptation to caricature critics and to avoid calling things by their proper names. Yet sensitivity should be set aside and temptation resisted. Perhaps the time has come for a bipartisan Syrian Study Group to review the bidding: to identify, systematically and comprehensively, US interests, objectives, and strategic options with regard to Syria.

The stakes in Syria are enormous: Assad, his confederates, and his external supporters are demonstrating to political criminals the world over that literally nothing is beyond the pale when it comes to targeting civilians: not even localized genocide. Assad, his confederates, his external supporters, and other bad actors are learning the wrong lesson: the civilized world is powerless to stop the most outrageous of depredations. Getting Syria right should, given the nature of the challenge, trump rhetorical gamesmanship.

Frederic C. Hof is a resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Related Experts: Frederic C. Hof

Image: Residents wait to receive food aid distributed by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) at the besieged al-Yarmouk camp, south of Damascus on January 31, 2014. (Photo: REUTERS/UNRWA)