A statement by a
Some critics of the Obama administration's cautious Syria policy argue for dramatically increasing aid to rebels seeking the overthrow of President
But as grievous as the humanitarian situation in Syria is, a unilateral military campaign by the U.S. — even if it were supported by
That the Assad regime is willing to kill innocents and violate international norms is hardly a surprise at this point, not after the deaths of hundreds of civilians in a chemical weapons attack outside Damascus last summer. Although U.N. investigators didn't explicitly accuse the regime of carrying out the attacks, its findings strongly supported that explanation. This month, Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, suggested that investigators had established a link between the regime and other crimes against humanity. Foreign fighters who support Assad, including members of the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, also have been accused of atrocities.
But not all of the atrocities are being committed by the regime. Some of the fighters seeking to overthrow Assad have also been accused of atrocities. In fact, as in many a
The Syrian civil war would seem an obvious candidate for humanitarian military intervention under the "responsibility to protect" doctrine proclaimed at a U.N. summit in 2005 and later ratified by the Security Council. That policy calls on individual nations to prevent war crimes within their borders, but it also says the Security Council can authorize collective action "should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity." But for the Security Council to act, there must be
Syria, however, is a geopolitically more divisive conflict. Russia and China have repeatedly vetoed resolutions aimed at punishing the Assad regime and would certainly oppose an operation like the air campaign in Libya. Still, those nations came together with Western powers to approve a resolution under which Syria is expected to dismantle its chemical weapons program. And Russia is intimately involved in preparations for a peace conference next month in Geneva involving representatives of the Assad regime and rebel groups. It's an understatement to say that the conference might fail, but an agreement — even if it left Assad in power for some period — is the most practical way to end the violence.
Those who advocate a more assertive U.S. policy argue that the most humane option is to ratchet up the pressure on Assad. The sooner he falls, the argument goes, the sooner the violence will end and refugees will be able to return home. But that calculation is naive. An attempt by the U.S. and its allies to overthrow Assad by force would be bloody and protracted and could have disastrous side effects, including the empowerment of Islamist extremists and a rupture in negotiations with Iran, an Assad ally, on its
The U.S. should not rule out humanitarian intervention to protect people around the world facing genocide and crimes against humanity. But it should act only with the broadest possible international support and participation, and only after other means are exhausted. Planners should set narrowly tailored, achievable aims. They should have an exit strategy.