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As atrocities mount in Syria, international community struggles to choose course of action

A rebel peers through a window in Idlib, Syria, Thursday. Syrian forces fired mortars and rockets that killed scores of people Thursday in the rebellious city of Homs, activists said.

Associated Press/Associated Press

Scores more were killed Thursday as artillery salvo pounded Homs – the battered and bloodied Syrian city targeted by President Bashar al-Assad's loyal security forces for a brutal repression.

"The appalling brutality we are witnessing in Homs, with heavy weapons firing into civilian neighbourhoods, is a grim harbinger of things to come," said UN Security-General Ban Ki-moon, warning of even worse if full-blown civil war erupts.

Appeals for help from Homs, where makeshift hospitals were reportedly overflowing with the dying and food was scarce in some besieged neighbourhoods, came after a week of sniper fire and machine-gun barrages. The day's death toll, impossible to confirm, was said to be more than 100 by nightfall, according to eyewitnesses and beleaguered medical staff.

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Fragmentary messages and grim images emerged from the stricken city. The al-Assad regime has banned foreign journalists as it battles what it regards as a terrorist-backed uprising.

In one emotional appeal, posted to YouTube, a Syrian doctor, standing next to a bloodied body, begged: "We appeal to the international community to help us transport the wounded. We wait for them here to die in mosques. I appeal to the United Nations and to international humanitarian organizations to stop the rockets from being fired on us."

More than 5,000 people have been killed since Arab Spring pro-democracy uprisings reached Syria.

But after a double veto from Russia and China thwarted a UN Security Council resolution calling for Mr. Assad to quit, the international community was left scrambling for something credible and effective to do in the face of mounting atrocities.

The White House ruled out arming the Syrian opposition. Turkey called for a conference. And China met Syrian opposition figures even as plumes of smoke rose from embattled Homs. In other Syrian cities, scattered protests – and government crackdowns – continued.

As blood runs in Syrian streets, the outside world has few options. They all carry risks, not least turning a grim bloodbath into a full-blown civil war, or worse, a regional war putting millions in danger.

Wring hands and wait

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This is perhaps the toughest option, as the rising clamour to "do something" starts to pose political consequences in the United States and France (both with presidential elections under way) and across the Arab world where restive populations know that if one repressive regime in a major Arab state manages to defeat the pro-democracy forces, it will embolden the remaining dictators.

But, in the wake of the Russian and Chinese veto, waiting may be the West's best option. The veto puts Moscow, Syria's only great-power ally, on the spot. If Russia fails to persuade Mr. Assad to hand power over – and perhaps offer him asylum – then by waiting Washington may strengthen its hand. "Faced with a neutered Security Council, we have to redouble our efforts outside of the United Nations," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says.

The risks, of course, are huge. For the world to simply watch, and fail to act, as it did while a slow genocide unfolded Rwanda, would disgrace the vows of "never again."

Enclaves, Conferences and Diplomatic Pressure

In the absence of a Security Council resolution, the United Nations, the Arab League and Western nations are scrambling. But despite an array of options, none seem likely to force Mr. Assad to relinquish power.

Ms. Clinton wants more sanctions. A "humanitarian enclave" is touted, to provide a safe haven for Syrians to flee the regime – presumably to Turkey. In 1991, tens of thousands of Kurds fled the postwar wrath of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, finding temporary sanctuary in Turkey. But "safe havens" have a troubled history. Srebrenica became a death camp. For Turkey, the prospect of a refugee camps morphing into radicalized bases for armed attacks makes the option problematic, not least because its own restive Kurdish minority dreams of a homeland shared with Syrian and Iranian Kurds.

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An enclave might also be counterproductive, giving the Assad regime a place to drive its opponents.

Recognizing and arming the opposition, indicting Assad

Riskier still would be arming the opposition – in effect turning the so-far largely peaceful pro-democracy protests into a full-blown insurrection pitted against the Syrian army. In the United States, some leading voices – notably Senator John McCain, who was in the forefront of calling for armed opposition to Libya's Moammar Gadhafi – want to back Syria's nascent liberation army. "We should start considering options, arming the opposition," Mr. McCain says. So far, at least, the Obama administration rejects that idea. "We don't think more arms into Syria is the answer," one official said.

Recognizing the Syrian National Council would represent a powerful, if symbolic, slap at Mr. Assad. But for other nations to regard the nascent opposition group as some sort of legitimate government in exile would mean little without active support.

So too would be seeking an indictment of Mr. Assad at the International Criminal Court. It might leave him isolated but even more defiant, as was the case with Colonel Gadhafi.

War without mandate

Risky, but not unprecedented. In 1999, knowing that China and Russia would veto air strikes against Serbia, the West ignored the UN Security Council and went to war anyway. U.S. and Canadian warplanes, along with those of some other NATO countries, bombed Serb troops and positions. It took months before the Serbs capitulated but the air war saved hundreds of thousands of Albanians from ethnic cleansing. Any military intervention in Syria would be a far bigger war, with far greater risks, than Libya. Syria is far more powerful and has Iran as a close ally and neighbour. A U.S-led military intervention in Syria could quickly spiral out of control, with Syrian-backed Hezbollah forces attacking Israel and the entire Middle East engulfed.

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International Affairs and Security Correspondent

Paul More

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