It’s time for an intervention. The brutal massacre of over 100 people, mostly women and children, in Houla, Syria last week shook the world’s conscience. Despite more than a year of atrocities, the murder of civilians in Houla has spurred the largest global outcry to date and rare unified condemnation by the United Nations Security Council. It also brought increased calls for military intervention with U.S. General Martin Dempsey warning that he had contingency plans ready and that atrocities like those in Houla made military intervention, although a last resort, all the more likely.
But the massacre in Houla should also raise the specter of another kind of intervention. The international community should have a diplomatic “intervention” with Syria’s strongest remaining ally, Russia. In the chorus of condemnation that resounded after the massacre, Russia’s voice stood out for its glaring ambiguity. Even as it joined others in condemning what happened in Houla, Russia provided Syria with political cover and quashed any hope for meaningful action.
Russia remains Syria’s main arms supplier with deliveries continuing as early as last week. It has also blocked all attempts at the United Nations (UN) Security Council to apply consequences like sanctions to Syria. Even after the Houla massacre, Russia questioned the UN monitor’s conclusions that the Assad regime was responsible, criticizing other countries for expelling Syrian diplomats, and making it clear that it would not consider further action.
The Obama administration has begun to pressure Russia, but has not done enough. The U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, who is leading the charge, stated yesterday that if Russia did not join in UN Security Council action that a worst case scenario of regional escalation was likely to unfold. Today, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was pressing her case with Russia and, when asked about military intervention, responded, “every day that goes by makes the argument for it stronger”. Yet, the tough talk is undermined by the reality that the United States itself continues to do business with the very same Russian state-owned arms company that is arming the Syrian regime.
The United States should also work with Syria’s regional neighbors. Last November, the Arab League kicked Syria out. Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have criticized Russia for blocking earlier resolutions, saying that the action was effectively giving Syria “a license to kill”. These countries need to make clear to Russia that supporting Syria is not in its regional interest. They may also be able to provide some incentives to counter Russia’s worries over lost business and influence with the fall of Syria.
Russia is not alone in its support of the Syrian regime. Iran continues to pump money and weapons into Syria and mistakenly admitted last week that it was sending its own troops in. Venezuela delivered a ship full of diesel fuel last week, undermining efforts toward building effective pressure. And China has joined Russia in blocking action in the Security Council. But, Russia has been by far the strongest voice in protecting the Syrian regime from international pressure.
The fact is that Russia continues to arm a regime that has killed more than 12,000 people, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The discovery yesterday of 13 bodies with their hands bound and gunshot wounds to the head, coupled with reports of the further shelling of Houla demonstrates that atrocities are set to continue. As they do, military options may very well become necessary as a last resort. However, first there should be an intervention with Russia.
An opportunity to engage Russia emerges tomorrow when Russian President Vladamir Putin begins a trip to France and Germany. It should be made clear to Russia that, if it truly wants to avoid any military intervention, now is the time to pull out all the diplomatic and economic stops. Russia must stop arming the Assad regime and be clear in its condemnation of the brutality occurring in places like Houla.
Condemnation without consequence is hollow. The current trajectory of atrocities and escalating regional sectarian war is in no one’s interest, not even Russia’s.