The Syrian tragedy—the irrevocable madness that has taken hold of Bashar al-Assad, the unending agony of Syria’s civilians targeted by his guns—raises all sorts of questions that the heat of summer must not prevent us from asking. After all, dictators don’t take vacations.
Is it necessary to intervene? In other words, does “the responsibility to protect civilians,” which is the United Nations’ version of the old theory of just war, apply in this situation? The answer is yes, without a doubt. Or, more precisely, the answer must be yes for anyone who believed that it applied last year in Libya. The cause is just. The intention is honorable. The Syrians themselves—this is key—are appealing for aid. Political and diplomatic avenues of recourse have been exhausted. The damage that might be caused by an operation to save civilians could not be more than that already wrought by the long-range guns that continue to shell the rebel cities. Benghazi yesterday, Aleppo today. The crimes now being perpetrated are the same as those with which Gaddafi threatened the capital of Cyrenaica. It makes no sense that action taken to forestall a threat not yet carried out should be withheld in this case, where the goal is not to prevent the crime from occurring but to stop it now that it is under way. It is a question of -logic and consistency. Libya makes intervention necessary.
Is it possible to intervene? What can be done in the face of the Russian and Chinese vetoes in the U.N. Security Council? The answer is not as complicated as those who are determined not to intervene would have us believe. It is the answer that French President Nicolas Sarkozy gave to the representatives of Libya’s Transitional National Council on March 11, 2011, when they asked him what would happen if France and the United States could not persuade the Security Council to go along with their plans. “That would be very unfortunate,” Sarkozy responded. “And we have to do everything we can to keep that from happening, but if we don’t succeed, then it will be necessary, together with the appropriate regional organizations (the Arab League, the African Union), to establish an alternative supervisory authority that will enable us to act.” Indeed, that is just what Susan Rice, the U.S. permanent representative to the Security Council, suggested with respect to Syria on May 30, 2012, following a briefing by Jean-Marie Guéhenno, Kofi Annan’s deputy, who was already beginning to come to grips with the failure of the U.N. mediation. If it did fail, Rice said, the international community would have to consider “whether they’re prepared to take actions outside of the Annan plan and the authority of this Council.” From the American ambassador! In this case, it was a question of law. Or more precisely of the need to amend the law when its provisions conflict with the requirements of natural law and justice. The Russian and Chinese vetoes are not an argument—they’re an alibi, the alibi of those who secretly believe that Assad will be strong enough to crush the insurrection and get us off the hook. The bloodbath is his—the crocodile tears, ours.
What form should the intervention take? And what would be the aims of the mission to protect Syrian civilians? With hypocrisy in seemingly endless supply in this debate, many pretend to believe that it would be necessary to launch a full-out war, as in Afghanistan, sending in infantry divisions. But that is not what is needed. Instead, we need a series of measures designed to stop the killings perpetrated by the Assad regime. This will require, first, a no-fly zone enforced from NATO bases in Izmir and Incirlik, in Turkey, to keep Assad’s aircraft from gunning down the women and children of Aleppo. A second element is a no-drive zone, also enforced from the air, that would prevent armored divisions from moving from city to city and spreading terror. A third component is the Qatari proposal to set up no-kill zones, secured by elements of the Free Syrian Army equipped with defensive weapons. A fourth is Turkey’s idea of buffer zones in northern Syria that would provide a refuge for civilians fleeing the fighting. In short, a graduated set of measures that would let the dictator know that the world will no longer stand for his butchery. It is a scenario that is fairly close to that envisioned in the early weeks by the anti-Gaddafi coalition, altered from its initial aims only by the dictator’s suicidal choice to fight to the death. It is certainly possible that Assad is as crazy as Gaddafi and as ready to embrace death (¡viva la muerte!), but that is not the most likely possibility, which is why the graduated approach involving a succession of steps may be able to persuade the regime to yield. Assad is a paper tiger. Only our weakness makes him strong. Once the friends of the Syrian people reveal their determination and show tangible signs of their willingness to strike, it is a reasonable bet that Assad will choose exile over suicide.
Who should intervene? This is where the Syrian and Libyan situations differ—but again, not in the way that is generally thought. Contrary to what one often sees in print, Gaddafi enjoyed solid support in the region. Assad, by contrast, is an outcast in the Arab world. He is detested in Africa, feared in Israel. Above all, he has, in Ankara, an avowed enemy with a powerful army that is a member of NATO. Turkey has two reasons to want to get rid of him. The first is its historic rivalry with Iran, which supports Assad. The second is the fear that this war, if it continues, will stoke secessionist stirrings in its own Kurdish minority, which might be -tempted to follow in the footsteps of their brothers across the Syrian border in declaring de facto autonomy, guns in hand. Assad is more isolated than was Gaddafi. And the coalition coming to the aid of his victims would be larger, easier to put in place, and hardly less powerful than the one mounted in Libya, pretty much alone, by the United States, Britain, and France.
What role for the United States? The U.S. military, and the administration of Barack Obama, played a decisive role in Libya. Hillary Clinton had a personal bond with Nicolas Sarkozy that made it easy for them to work together. (I recall her asking me anxiously, months after the end of the -Libyan war, if Sarkozy would prevail against François Hollande in France’s presidential election. Her sympathies were clear.) But today the United States is embroiled in its own election. Mitt Romney’s clumsy statements on foreign affairs do not make things any easier. As for Obama, he seems to me to be the same idealist with whom I spoke at length in his hotel the day after his speech to the Democratic Convention in Boston in July 2004—an idealist who cared passionately about justice and human rights. Yet it is clear that this time the White House will not be able to do as much as it did in Libya. Logistical support, yes. The loan of intelligence capabilities, yes. Technology for targeting the Syrian antiaircraft batteries that, if not knocked out in advance, would make the no-fly zone impossible to enforce—yes, that too. But the political initiative will have to come from elsewhere. The necessary roles of initiator, facilitator, and architect will have to be played by another actor. And that actor must be France.
Why France is crucial. France’s role is essential because of the temporary and relative eclipse of American leadership. But also because France enjoys, within the region, added prestige from its action in Libya. It has historic ties with the Near East. And, as chance would have it, it holds—until the end of August—the revolving presidency of the U.N. Security Council. It is hard to understand why, under these conditions, Sarkozy’s successor, newly elected and thus enjoying significant room to maneuver, would not take full advantage of the resources available to him in this situation. It would be regrettable, to say the least, not to take the steps needed to hasten the formation of the sort of grand alliance that alone can rid the world of the man whom the French minister of foreign affairs, Laurent Fabius, has several times referred to as the executioner of his own people. To focus the world’s attention, to bring together a diverse set of actors with similar views, to rally the hesitant, to shame the defeatists, and to call upon the conscience of the world from the global stage that is an emergency session of the Security Council—all this should be France’s responsibility.
What about the risk of a wider conflagration? Doesn’t the growing involve-ment of Iran in the Syrian conflict introduce an additional element of danger that didn’t exist in the case of Libya? Certainly. But the reasoning could be turned around. What one discovers in the strength of the bond between Assad and Ahmadinejad—a bond of which we have long been aware but now know to be vital to both—should inspire two feelings. Fear, first of all, at the idea that Syria’s revolt against the Assad regime might have occurred one, two, or five years later, after the Iranians had acquired the nuclear capability that they are pursuing. If that had been the case, the international community would have faced naked -blackmail—held hostage, it would have had no ready response. A wider war, under those circumstances, would not have been the worst case; we would have faced the possibility of apocalypse. Hence the need to take advantage of the present situation to weaken, and perhaps even to break at its weakest link, that arc that connects Tehran to Hizbullah by way of Damascus and, to a lesser degree, Baghdad. Intervening in Aleppo would put an end to a campaign against Syria’s civilian population that has already claimed more than 20,000 lives. That is the essential point. But a broader reason for the world to take a stand for humanity and against the crimes committed against it, at least on this occasion, would be to strike at forces that threaten not just the region but the world as a whole. Not a conflagration, but a reduction in the risk of conflagration. Not a war, but a cooling of the centrifuges that are preparing the wars of tomorrow.
What comes after Assad? What will become of Syria’s minorities, especially the Christians, whom the Assad regime manipulated by pretending to be their protector? The question is important. And anything is possible, even the worst case. In a ruined country overheated by violence, every day brings new jolts of desolation and impotent rage, inflaming the search for scapegoats and for a settling of accounts. But the international community is not without resources or experience in situations of this kind; it is not hard to imagine for Syria, once the killing ceases, a solution similar to the one adopted in Kosovo, which prevented reprisals against Serbs who remained in the area. In the case of Syria, a U.N. force, or perhaps a force constituted solely from among the Arab countries, could oversee the reconstruction of Syrian society. And there is no reason why the leaders of the coalition that promises its planes to save Homs, Houla, and Aleppo could not demand guarantees concerning the nature of the new Syrian state and the status of religious minorities within it. Such guarantees can be breached, of course. But here, too, Libya provides a precedent. There we have seen that a friendly, helpful West, after doing its part to liberate the country, has had a say in the shape of the post-Gaddafi order. A rejection of terrorism, a lessening of the appeal of Islamist politics, an electoral victory by moderates, and the avoidance of widespread vendettas—those are signs that a mature people has been ennobled, enlightened, and freed of a share of their evil demons by the trials of combat. But they are also the fruit of an -unprecedented partnership in arms between Arab youth and European and American aviators and their leaders, who intervened for the first time as friends, not of tyrants, but of common people. The advancement of a similar partnership in Syria would be yet another reason, if one were needed, to act without delay to stop the killing.
A version of this essay originally appeared in Le Monde. It was translated from the French by Steven B. Kennedy.