At this point, the best solution to the staggeringly brutal but seemingly stalemated civil war in Syria is probably a diplomatic one. But with support for Syrian President Bashar Assad from China and, more reliably, Russia, diplomacy so far has failed. As permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, they have exercised their vetoes four times to block actions against Syria, including one that would have referred war crime allegations to the International Criminal Court at The Hague. They did sign off on resolutions calling on member nations to supply humanitarian aid to Syria, demanding an end to attacks on civilians and authorizing aid workers to enter Syria without Assad's permission. But human rights groups and a spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon say member nations have failed to deliver. And Assad and various rebel forces continue to target civilians, observers say.
Meanwhile, humanitarian need rose by a third last year. According to the recent “Failing Syria” report by 21 human rights organizations, nearly 12 million people lack reliable access to clean water, and 10 million lack access to food. Nearly half of the nation's prewar population of 22 million has been displaced, 3.7 million of them to other countries. Last year 76,000 people died in the fighting, more than a third of the 220,000 deaths since the war began four years ago.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry said recently that unspecified diplomatic efforts are underway to try to force Assad to cede power, but he gave no indication that there was cause for optimism. With Russia and China protecting Assad from significant Security Council actions, he has little reason to negotiate so long as he thinks he might survive the war.
As the diplomats try to end the fighting, the international community should step up humanitarian aid. Last year, only 57% of the $6 billion needed was provided; the year before, U.N. member nations provided 71% of the $4.4 billion needed. In all, the aid groups estimate that it will take $8.4 billion to meet humanitarian needs in and around Syria. At the same time, other nations have offered to resettle only 2% of the refugees.
The persistence of the violence and the inadequate response are, as the report says, “a stain on the conscience of the international community.” History, and perhaps The Hague, will judge Assad. But history also will judge how the rest of the world behaved in a time of crisis.