Critics of presidential passivity really want hundreds of thousands of uniformed Americans thrust into a foreign war. The killings are horrific, but reflect age-old hatreds and grudges. The opposition is hapless, and it too does bad things: there are “no good guys” and the conflict itself defines complexity. It is a tragedy, but not our tragedy: someone else should fix it. Our intervention would only endanger the victims and make things worse. Indeed, it would put us on a slippery slope to an open-ended war; a destructive, never-ending foreign involvement. There is no American national interest engaged by the slaughter of civilians in a faraway place, but the US should always speak out against inhumanity. All of the foregoing is drawn from Clinton administration official reactions to mass murder in Bosnia. Sound familiar?
To read the “Bosnia” and “Srebrenica” chapters of Samantha Power’s masterful “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide is to court depression and outrage. Surely, President Barack Obama—a literate person of great intellectual acuity—has read the award-winning work of his UN Ambassador. Surely when he reads about the craven, timorous, self-serving excuses for inaction offered by American leaders in the face of Serbian mass murder—precisely the excuses listed above—he hears the echo of Bosnia in the terrified screams of Syrian children, the bottomless heartbreak of their parents, and the prevaricating talking points of his own administration.
Ah, but it is different, he will say. Serbian depredations against Bosnia Muslims were genocidal in nature. They were (to quote the language of the 1951 Genocide Convention) intended “to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such.” The collective punishment, mass homicide campaign of the Assad regime in Syria is not genocidal. Yes, the practical effects are the same: defenseless civilians murdered, maimed, raped, tortured, starved, and stampeded from their homes. Yes, it is mass murder. But it is not the specific subset of mass murder that mandates coercive protective measures. It is not genocide.
But what if it were? What if the Assad regime were actually engaged in an attempt to destroy one of the four kinds of groups listed in the convention? What if the Obama administration concluded that genocide was taking place in Syria? What if President Obama were to reach the same conclusion that President Bill Clinton eventually reached: that a military response was mandated to protect civilians from a mass murdering maniac, to uphold the reputation of the United States, and to escape from an increasingly untenable political position? Having reached such a conclusion, what would happen to all of the excuses for inaction previously deployed?
Obviously, the alibis would become instantly inoperative. Slippery slope? Nonsense: we will govern the nature and extent of our intervention. Killers and killed morally equivalent? Inadmissible and reprehensible. Someone else’s business? Not when the United States purports to be the world leader and can make a decisive difference. Make things worse? Ask Syrians dealing with daily terror; ask Western Europeans how they would feel about stopping the refugee problem at its source. No US national interest? Not only do we have vulnerable allies, but the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) criminal-terrorist organization we are now fighting in eastern Syria benefits directly from Assad regime atrocities in the west. Speak out against inhumanity? Yes, we can do that. But we are Americans: we back up talk with action.
Were this genocide and were the administration to identify it as such, one would hope that Barack Obama would sweep aside the hand-wringers and excuse-makers. He would direct the Department of Defense to give him a range of options, from complicating to crippling Bashar al-Assad’s mass murder machine. He would choose an option and execute. He came close in August-September 2013 when the regime unleashed chemicals on sleeping children and their parents. But he flinched and the regime doubled-down on nonchemical atrocities as it yielded much of its chemical weapons capability. Yet, if this president were to determine that genocide is in play in Syria, presumably he would not flinch. He would act with lethality and dispatch. He would save lives while simultaneously striking a blow at ISIL’s narrative and its recruitment efforts.
No doubt there have been, at the local level, genocidal acts in Syria. A shabiha commander leading his forces into a Sunni Muslim village and directing his gunmen to pillage, murder, and rape their way from house-to-house may well have been motivated by genocidal impulses. Current attempts by Iran and Hezbollah to cleanse the Zabadani region near the Lebanese border of Sunni Muslims may approach the standard.
No one, however, will make the case that Bashar al-Assad aims to eliminate the Syrian Sunni Arab community per se in Syria. Surely, his Foreign Minister—a Sunni Arab—would reject the accusation categorically. Yet, if genocide were in play, would the effects of the Assad regime’s collective punishment reign of terror look markedly different from the results on the ground? Would the impact on Syria’s neighbors be noticeably different? Would ISIL—the vacuum-filling monster brought about by Assad regime mass homicide and illegitimacy—be any more murderous than it is? The regime has authorized and conducted mass casualty operations in Sunni Muslim areas on the assumption that those vaporized by barrel bombs and terrorized for life support the rebellion—at least in part due to their sectarian identity—and are therefore something less than human.
The fact that the Assad regime has generally avoided the genocide subset of mass murder has not made the US response to its depredations any more honorable or practical. The administration has employed all of the Bosnia alibis to excuse itself from mitigating mass murder in Syria and, for the most part, it has enjoyed the support of what passes for leadership in Western Europe. There is nothing in the Obama administration’s actions with respect to the Syrian crisis that would dissuade any adversary of the United States from sensing weakness: an oceanic gap between rhetoric and deeds. Yet, the administration seems to believe that because genocide per se is not in play it gets a pass: not only on the humanitarian front, but on the credibility front as well.
As noted in a previous edition of MENASource, a senior Obama administration official told us recently, “I’m deeply sorry to say the United States has not made a policy decision to prevent the slaughter of innocent Syrian civilians by regime barrel bombs … to our everlasting shame.” When the civilized world adopted “Never Again” as the default policy response to genocide, surely it did not intend to signal apathy or consent in the face of the genus in which genocide resides: mass homicide. Surely, the Genocide Convention was not intended to place a barrier in the way of protecting vulnerable populations from mass murder.
After an agonizingly long delay in which his presidency and his leadership came under withering criticism, President Bill Clinton finally did the right thing. President Barack Obama has the same opportunity. The presumed absence of genocidal motives on the part of the Assad regime is not a permission slip for inaction. The everlasting shame that was Bosnia is repeated in Syria. The President should replicate the policy reversal of his predecessor once-removed.
Frederic C. Hof is a Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.