The Syrian people are caught in a horrible downward spiral. The government’s slaughter seems only to intensify as President Bashar al-Assad pursues a ruthless strategy of draining the sea to get the fish — attacking civilians so they will flee and leave the armed opposition isolated.
Meanwhile, the sprawling collection of militias that constitute the armed opposition includes some that are themselves torturing and executing prisoners and promoting sectarian strife. While not on a par with the government-directed slaughter, their abuses encourage Syria’s minorities to stick with the murderous Assad rather than risk an uncertain future under rebel rule.
The Syrian National Coalition was created to provide a unified command structure that could replace Assad, rein in abusive rebel forces, promote minority rights and pursue a transition that left the state sufficiently intact to avoid a chaotic collapse. Yet the S.N.C. has little clout because it has nothing to offer the people to relieve their suffering.
At the very least, a major influx of humanitarian aid is needed.
So far, most donors have sent aid via operations based in Damascus, meaning little gets to many opposition-held areas of Syria where the suffering is most acute, even when those in need are just across the border from major relief operations in Turkey.
Some humanitarian organizations fear the government will attack them or shut down their Damascus-based operations if they also operate from across Syria’s borders. Others are simply following the usual U.N. rules and deferring to the Syrian government.
At least some donors should break from this logic and massively augment growing but wholly inadequate of humanitarian aid now crossing from Turkey into Syria through nongovernmental organizations. Aid should be delivered in coordination with rights-respecting elements of the rudimentary civilian governance structures that have been created in opposition-held areas of Syria.
That would help to ease real suffering. It would also enhance the influence of voices in both the international community and Syrian civilian governance structures that are encouraging opposition fighters to respect rights and embrace a vision for the country that includes all Syrians.
Ideally, to maximize effectiveness, cross-border aid should be sent with Damascus’s consent or U.N. Security Council approval, but given the intransigence of Assad and his Russian backers, the international community should not wait for permission.
Government forces might still try to bomb the aid, much as they have attacked bakeries and bread lines in northern Syria. But such brazen sabotage of relief efforts would risk retaliatory steps of the sort the international community so far has been unwilling to take.
Even if large-scale cross-border aid proceeds, it is important not to replicate the “well fed dead” phenomenon of Bosnia, where the international community focused on humanitarian aid to civilians rather than ending their slaughter.
The international community, which has a “responsibility to protect” the Syrian people, fears that giving the opposition arms or military support may contribute to a still more repressive future or a sectarian civil war.
Yet the jihadist elements of the opposition have their own networks to obtain arms, reinforcing the international community’s propensity to inaction and at the same time allowing Assad to use their power to rally his supporters.
The West has imposed sanctions on the Syrian leadership, but tougher measures — such as worldwide sanctions, a global ban on sending arms to pro-Assad forces or the invocation of the International Criminal Court — have been stymied in the U.N. Security Council by Russia’s veto, backed by China.
The international community is wrong to treat Russia’s obstruction as reason to give up. More can and should be done, starting with greatly increased cross-border humanitarian aid. And if that aid succeeds in bolstering rights-respecting elements of the armed opposition, it could have important knock-on effects.
A stronger, respected civilian governance structure would have more authority to negotiate an orderly transition in lieu of the chaos and endless civil war that many dread. It could also reduce fears that a successor government might be worse than the current regime.
The carnage in Syria should redouble our determination to end it. A massive cross-border humanitarian operation is feasible, and it could contribute to a virtuous cycle that Syria desperately needs to curb the slaughter of civilians.
Kenneth Roth is executive director of Human Rights Watch.