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February 07, 2012

From Hama to Homs, by way of Sarajevo, Kigali (but also Skopje and Nairobi)
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

It's thirty years this month since the father and brother of the current Syrian President Assad cracked down on a Muslim Brotherhood rebellion in Hama, Syria, killing somewhere between 5,000 and 25,000, according to Amnesty International's best guess.

If you wonder what the Assad family style of large-scale killing is like, here are some insights:

The fighting took two weeks; one to recapture the city from insurgents and two to "root out" insurgents and others.

The killing and destruction documented by Syrians and outsiders included dynamiting city blocks with people inside; pouring gasoline into underground tunnels and setting them on fire; aerial bombardment, extended shelling, torture.

Many Americans will remember their first encounter with this piece of history as a chapter, "Hama Rules," in Tom Friedman's From Beirut to Jerusalem in which he cites the current president's uncle and then-president's brother, Rifaat Assad, as boasting that he had killed 38,000 people.

It is fair to ask, as we are presented with gruesome images of a Syrian government assault on another city tonight, whether anything other than the speed and ubiquity of information technology has changed in the intervening 30 years. In recent months, a number of UN debates, academic conferences, and policy task forces have asked this question in specialist language:  Whither R2P? Responsibility to Protect or Responsibility While Protecting? Humanitarian Response in a New Age...

I suggest that three major things have changed, in a manner which speaks well for the arc of history but terribly for families cowering in terror in Syria tonight.

1. Ignorance is No Longer an Excuse. It's worth re-reading Samantha Power's 2001 Atlantic article on Rwanda, in which she persuaded a number of rather senior Clinton Administration officials (my bosses) to say that they didn't know, or didn't understand, soon enough how widespread the genocidal killing was. Whether or not that is so, it's worth noting that 1994 is the last time a Western leader attempted to claim ignorance as an excuse for inaction. No one says s/he didn't know the threat to Kosovars in 1999, or to Macedonians (an overlooked success of peaceful intervention) in 2001; or for that matter to two abject failures, Congo and Sri Lanka. A web of NGO projects were founded specifically in order to end the ignorance defense, from the International Crisis Group to the Satellite Sentinel project for Sudan and South Sudan; we have nodes and offices and procedures within governments and at the UN.

2. Sovereignty Is No Longer Absolute. Just how different are international attitudes toward how rulers treat their citizens? In 1982, the New York Times reported that

The United States Ambassador, Robert Paganelli, was summoned to a meeting with Deputy Foreign Minister Nasir Qaddour at 1:30 A.M. to receive a strong protest over the State Department's statement Wednesday that Hama had been ''sealed off by Syrian authorities'' as a result of ''serious disturbances.''

Nowadays even Russia and China declare Assad's actions unacceptable. The core insight of twenty years' work -- and twenty years of UN acronyms -- that sovereignty over people entails responsibility toward them, responsibilities in which the rest of the world has a legitimate interest, is triumphant in word. In deed, not so much.

3. Accountability Has Meaning. Hafez Assad ruled Syria longer after Hama than before, dying of heart failure in 2000 as the Middle East's longest-serving ruler. His son is unlikely to be so fortunate. His former colleagues Hosni Mubarak and Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali are on trial in their own countries, Ben Ali in absentia since Saudi Arabia has declined to return him.  Liberian strongman Charles Taylor is awaiting the verdict from the Special Court for Sierra Leone on his role in sparking that horrific violence. Slobodan Milosevic died of a heart attack while on trial in the Hague. The UN Human Rights Commissioner has called for Assad to be brought up on charges by the International Criminal Court, and the Gulf Cooperation Council appears to be considering a similar step. This would leave Assad very little ability to travel outside Syria, even were he to be successful in suppressin protests and rebellion.

4. Pressure Mounts Over Time. In 1982, Hafez Assad faced little more international pressure in week three of his campaign than he did on day one. That is simply no longer imaginable. Power documents how in 1994, calls for action in Rwanda eventually mounted among smaller countries at the UN, and in some quarters in Washington, but never reached critical mass. In Bosnia, later that same year, UN and NATO embarrassment and public anguish did eventually lead to action that, in turn, led to an end to fighting and the Dayton Accords. (I have been re-reading Madeleine Albright on this; Richard Holbrooke is also instructive.) Kosovo and Libya were both instances where loud and ugly threats from dictators spurred action; Kenya and Macedonia, almost a decade apart, successful examples of non-violent prevention; Cote d'Ivoire an often-forgotten case that had languished before Libya but, in its aftermath, allowed a small show of force to end ugly and growing post-election violence.  The international community has sometimes gotten better at saving some lives; it has gotten less better more slowly at preventing any lives from being lost and a spiral of violence from starting in the first place.

None of this is much help to the Syrians who, tonight, stand in for our simple failure as human beings to control our own worst impulses, or each other's. The UN says it quit tallying deaths last month after 5400. We have reason to hope, non-interventionists, and arm-the-SNC and do-something-ers alike, that what we have achieved in the past thirty years will help us stop that tally before it gets to 25,000 or 40,000. But if the past thirty years have taught us anything it is that hope doesn't do it alone.

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