• Red lines
    January 22,2014

    Red-line offenses appear to be multiplying in Syria.

    “Red line” is the phrase used by President Obama with regard to chemical weapons: If the Assad regime used chemical weapons, Obama said, it would be crossing a red line and there would be consequences.

    It turned out that there was little interest either in Congress or among our allies for a military response to Bashar Assad’s use of poison gas. Instead, diplomatic pressure has forced Assad to surrender his chemical weapons, a process that has already begun.

    As evidence of the use of chemical weapons became known last summer, critics noted that they were responsible for only a small fraction of the deaths in the Syrian civil war. What about Assad’s other murders?

    Now we have evidence of crimes by Assad’s regime that far surpass his use of chemical weapons in scope and brutality. The BBC has reported that photographic evidence smuggled out of Syria shows the regime has murdered 11,000 detained persons, many of them after undergoing starvation or other forms of severe torture.

    These deaths exceed the toll suffered in Srebenica in 1995 during the Bosnian war. In what was the largest single massacre of a brutal war, Serbian forces in Srebenica killed more than 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys — an incident that shocked the world into action, leading to the Dayton peace accord.

    The extermination policies of the Syrian regime now place it among the most heinous regimes of recent times. Serbian leaders were eventually charged with war crimes, and there is little doubt that high officials of the Syrian government are also guilty of war crimes.

    The Obama administration found that the use of the term “red line” with regard to chemical weapons had painted it into a corner, forcing it to demand action it was not prepared to take. The use of chemical weapons justified a military response, but without political and diplomatic support or a clear plan of action, the administration remained hobbled.

    Now Obama has directed his effort toward the diplomatic push for peace unfolding this week in Geneva. And yet with the Syrian opposition grievously divided and the Syrian government faring better militarily, there is little likelihood of a meaningful outcome — one that would lead to the removal of Assad.

    Meanwhile, the new evidence of Assad’s brutality provides further justification, if not for military intervention, then at least for a hard line seeking a resolution of the war. It has already become an appallingly costly conflict with an estimated 130,000 people dead and between a fourth and a third of the nation uprooted. The divisions it has sown among peoples of the region are already yielding violence in Iraq and Lebanon. And at the center of the conflict is a regime that ranks with the villainous regimes of history — such as Milosevic’s regime in Serbia.

    International efforts to apply pressure have been hindered by Russia and Iran, which have continued to support Assad. The attempt by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to bring Iran into the negotiations in Geneva, though thwarted by the Syrian opposition and the United States, at least recognized Iran’s importance in the conflict. Iran’s role in supporting Assad also underscores the importance of the potential rapprochement between the United States and Iran.

    Any regime that has developed the military and bureaucratic machinery capable of murdering, then documenting the murders, of 11,000 people has strayed beyond the pale of civilized humanity. It is a regime captured by delusional paranoia and the lust for revenge. The international community has dithered as Syrian has burned because it has not been clear what ought to be done or could be done successfully. It is still not clear.

    What is becoming clear is that Syria is the tortured victim of war criminals desperate to maintain their power. Who knows what will follow? The chaos following the end of the Assad regime could make Iraq look like a Sunday school picnic. If it’s possible for the United States and its allies, together with the United Nations, to manage a transition to something new, it would be a service to humanity.

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