Inspired by the so-called Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere, a few Syrian kids last year scrawled some graffiti calling for freedom from oppression. For their pains, they were arrested, tortured and mutilated. In the outrage that followed, their deaths gave birth to an insurrection that has become a brutal civil war.
During a panel discussion last week at Miami Law, Dr. Doured Daghistani, Community Organizer with the Syrian American Council, recounted the origins of the Syrian conflict as he called for military action by Western powers to stem what he described as a "huge humanitarian crisis."
"If there is no intervention, there will be another Somalia here," Dr. Daghistani said. "Let's step up to the plate and get involved."
More than 9,000 people have died so far in the Syrian conflict, Dr. Daghistani said, and more than 20,000 are missing. As many as a quarter of a million Syrians have been displaced, with many fleeing to neighboring countries. Western powers have declined to get involved militarily — as they did in Libya — because "Syria has no oil," Dr. Daghistani said. "That's the main difference with Libya."
His remarks were part of a discussion entitled, "When Diplomacy Fails: The Syria Dilemma." Dr. Daghistani sat alongside Juan Larrain, Professor of International Studies at the University of Miami, former Chilean Ambassador to the United Nations and former advisor to the United Nations Security Council; Dr. Bradford McGuinn, Professor of Political Science at UM, advisor to the U.S. armed forces and a frequent lecturer at the U.S. Department of Defense; and Miami Law Professor Markus Wagner, who moderated the session.
Since March 2011, when Syrians began gathering almost daily to protest peacefully for democratic reform, the government of President Bashar Al-Assad has responded with brutal force, attempting to silence the protests with a military crackdown of almost unimaginable devastation. President Obama has joined other world leaders in condemning the brutality, stating that President Al-Assad has "lost all legitimacy," but traditional diplomacy has utterly failed to remedy the crisis.
"The international community has the right to investigate what is going on in a member state," Professor Larrain said, noting that the United Nations had just announced the arrival of UN monitors. They were first in a wave of individuals assigned to oversee a failed ceasefire agreement, part of a six-point peace plan brokered by Kofi Annan, the UN envoy on the Syria crisis.
Professor Larrain reminded the audience that although the concept of human rights is old, it is a new consideration for the Security Council, a body that was conceived to address conflicts between and among states, and not within them.
Much of the discussion focused on the topic of intervention on humanitarian grounds. "We've been here before, and that's why this is so frustrating," said Dr. McGuinn, comparing the current conflict in Syria to international debates about intervening in Kosovo and Libya. "Unless the Security Council members are in agreement, the Security Council is absolutely immobile."
In the current conflict, Russia and China have continuously vetoed international intervention, rendering a collective response from the Security Council impossible. And action by NATO presents its own problems.
"NATO ran out of bombs after four weeks of bombing Libya, so nothing can happen without the United States," Dr. Daghistani pointed out. Dr. McGuinn said that a "NATO-like force" would be necessary to protect minority groups and other vulnerable populations in Syria. To make matters more difficult, he said, the possible repercussions of a U.S.-led intervention would be the obvious danger to American troops.
Meanwhile, Syrians continue to suffer and die. "The cascade of misery is beyond the imagination," Dr. McGuinn said.
There was consensus among the panel members that something needs to be done, but there was considerable debate as to what the appropriate course of action might be. During a question-and-answer session, the panel was pressed to consider long-term solutions.
Several countries have proposed establishing humanitarian corridors. But Dr. Daghistani reminded the audience that "you can't create a safe-zone area without a big arm." Professor Larrain agreed that without a legitimate mandate, UN peacekeeping forces in such safe-zones would be "completely irrelevant."
Professor Wagner said that it would take little more than a brief glance at history to determine that "the international community is abysmally bad at nation-building." The reason, he said, is that nation-builders "are not home-grown."
Toward the end of the discussion, an audience member reminded those present that the human dimension of the crisis remains the most crucial, and that while other nations dither, the Syrian government keeps killing. "We know the true colors of the regime," she said. "We don't need more time."
The panel was set up by several student organizations at Miami Law — the International Law Society, the Muslim Law Students Association, the National Security and Armed Conflict Law Review, the Criminal Law Society, the Military Law Society, and the Student Organization for Human Rights.