The case for military intervention in Syria

President Obama was on the right track this week when he announced a new effort to monitor global hot spots and prevent mass atrocities before they happen.

But what about daily atrocities unfolding now in Syria – where a UN-brokered cease-fire is growing weaker by the day and the world refrains from intervening to stop the violence?

In this case, a history lesson from the Bosnian War is worth remembering. On May 1-2, 1993, negotiators at a resort outside of Athens reached agreement on the “Vance-Owen peace plan” aimed at ending Bosnia’s civil war. The plan required Bosnian Serbs to stop shelling Sarajevo, where Bosnian Muslims were under a year-long siege. The catch: Western military force might be required to implement the cease-fire.

(…)As we look back over recent decades, there have been a surprising number of mass-murder conflicts. Bosnia, Kosovo, Saddam Hussein’s attacks on the Kurds in Iraq, and Libya, to name a few. In each case, outside powers intervened at some point to stop the killing. The results – while imperfect – nonetheless saved thousands of lives and laid the groundwork for future settlements.

And of all these recent conflicts, which is the one we regret the most? Rwanda, where some 800,000 people were killed and the West did nothing.

This is the perspective one must bring to the conflict now raging in Syria.

Nearly all the arguments against intervention in Syria have merit. It is difficult. The Syrian military is strong. Outside powers such as Iran and Russia are engaged. The local politics are complicated. What comes after intervention? Who are the people we would help? What if a revolution is hijacked?

Sound familiar? It should. These are the same arguments, with a few modifications, that were heard before the interventions in Libya, Kosovo, Kurdish-Iraq, and Bosnia. And after hearing all of them, and seeing the killing continue, we should ask ourselves, “and then what?”

Imagine that after the shelling of Homs, after the shelling of Damascus suburbs, after everything we have seen over the past year, some new slaughter takes place. Imagine 5,000 people killed in one fell swoop. Or 7,000. Or 9,000. It’s happened before. In 1982, Bashar al-Assad’s father sent the military to the city of Hama to put down an armed insurrection, killing at least 10,000 people.

Kurt Volker, a former US ambassador to NATO, is a professor of practice at Arizona State University and a senior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

The above article was published in csmonitor.com on April 24th, 2012 (12:05 p.m.).

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