07/22/2013 12:41 EDT | Updated 09/21/2013 05:12 EDT

How Could the International Community Let This Happen?

In February 2012, amidst the then unfolding horror in Syria, British journalist Marie Colvin summed it up in one final poignant and painful dispatch before she herself was murdered in the assault on Homs: "In Baba Amr. Sickening. Cannot understand how the world can stand by... Feeling helpless... No one here can understand how the international community can let this happen."

Syrian rebels clash with government forces (unseen) at a military airport in Syria's northeastern city of Deir Ezzor on July 1, 2013. Fighting between rebels and regime loyalists continue amid diplomatic efforts to end the two-year conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people since March 2011, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. AFP PHOTO/KARAM JAMAL (Photo credit should read KARAM JAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)

In a mocking rejoinder at the same time, U.S. and Russian officials decided that a prospective international Geneva II peace conference would not take place, thereby confirming the banality of mass atrocity -- and the attending inaction.

Just over two years ago in the Syrian city of Deraa, thousands of demonstrators chanted "peaceful, peaceful" in protest against the arrest and subsequent torture of 20 youths who had written graffiti expressing their desire for freedom and reform.

The response of Bashar Assad's regime to those initial "peace and dignity" protests has been murder, mayhem and mass atrocity.

First, gunfire was directed at the demonstrators; then came widespread and indiscriminate artillery and tank assaults against civilian neighborhoods; this was followed by the brutal rape, torture and murder of their inhabitants, many of whom were women and children.

Next was the indiscriminate bombing, targeting of schools, hospitals and bakeries; then the firing of Scud missiles into cities; the use of cluster munitions and thermobaric weapons; and finally -- and now confirmed -- the deployment of weapons of mass destruction -- chemical weapons.

The intensification and scale of the death, destruction and devastation -- as documented in the recent report of the United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry- - finds expression in that, one year after the peaceful protests began in April 2012, Syrian deaths were estimated at 7,000; now, 6,000 are murdered monthly.

In February 2012, amidst the then unfolding horror, British journalist Marie Colvin summed it up in one final poignant and painful dispatch before she herself was murdered in the assault on Homs: "In Baba Amr. Sickening. Cannot understand how the world can stand by... Feeling helpless... No one here can understand how the international community can let this happen."

This plaintive cry holds true now more than ever. With the conflict in its third year, more than 100,000 have been killed, hundreds of thousands have been detained and disappeared, 4.5 million are internally displaced, and 1.7 million have fled the country as refugees. Even more tragic, as UNICEF and Save the Children reported recently, is that over 2 million children have been brutalized and victimized while women have been the targets of sexual violence and related honor killings.

At the same time, the humanitarian situation continues to degenerate so rapidly that it is, in the words of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, "dramatic beyond description."

Indeed, thousands of refugees, half of them children, are pouring out of Syria every day. Compounding this immense suffering is a gap in aid funding: while the UN recently issued an unprecedented $4.4 billion appeal, even the $1.5 billion. originally pledged by international donors has yet to materialize, making it impossible for international relief agencies to keep up with demand. What is worse, Guterres predicts that within months, there may be two or three times more refugees than there are now.

Despite the magnitude of this unthinkable horror, the international community has largely been a bystander, as it was with the mass atrocity and attending international inaction that so shamefully marked the genocides in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Darfur -- all of which helped give rise to the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine.

One is reminded of President Barack Obama's moving speech at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in April 2012 when he evoked the "never again" imperative five times, declaring that "too often the world has failed to prevent the killing of innocents on a mass scale." Of particular relevance to Syria, he added that "awareness without action changes nothing," and he affirmed that "we have to do everything we can."

Yet, as we have learned, the president overruled his entire national security team as early as a year ago, which then recommended, inter alia, supplying weapons to the rebels. Indeed, American inaction emboldened the Assad regime to intensify the assaults precisely as a strategy to ward off any intervention.

Meanwhile, everything that we were told would happen as a result of international action -- more killing, sectarian strife and jihadist involvement -- has happened because of international inaction.

The fact is that our expressions of outrage and condemnation have long been pitifully futile. What is necessary now, as it has been for the better part of two years, is for the United States -- in concert with the EU, the Arab League, Turkey, Canada and other "Friends of Syria" -- to act upon the following initiatives: First, it is important to reaffirm and reassert the moral imperative of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. Given the daily crimes against humanity that shock the conscience, acting upon R2P is more urgent than ever.

Second, there is clear evidence that chemical weapons have been used by the Assad regime -- the crossing of a "red line" that was to entail serious consequences -- and this has occurred without any consequences at all. This might well embolden the Syrian regime to use them again, or encourage their transfer to Hezbollah.

The weapons could also be seized by al-Qaida elements and transferred abroad. Accordingly, it is crucial to protect against the threat and use of these weapons, and to ensure that any deployment will in fact result in serious consequences.

Third, ironically enough, the warning that the use of chemical weapons is a red line that must not be crossed has allowed many other dangerous weapons to be used with impunity. Scud missiles, cluster bombs, and thermobaric bombs may well seem benign by comparison, but they are all part of the daily death, destruction and devastation.

Fourth, we must establish safe havens in Syria to serve as civilian protection zones, as refuge for the 4.5 million internally displaced and assaulted, and as corridors for the delivery of medical and humanitarian relief. These are particularly needed along Syria's international borders with Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. Any Syrian government assault on these zones would authorize legitimate self-defense measures, including no-fly zones, which are needed now more than ever given Assad's intensified aerial attacks on civilians.

Fifth, one must also factor into the daily assaults the intensified military involvement of Iran and its terrorist proxy Hezbollah. It is no longer just a question of Iran arming, training and financing the Syrian regime; rather, Iran has become an inextricable part of the Syrian killing machine, and Syria is increasingly emerging as a Revolutionary Guard protectorate. The thousands of Hezbollah fighters battling alongside Syrian government forces, together with increased Iranian involvement, and an emboldened Russian complicity, have significantly tipped the scales in favor of the Assad regime. Indeed, with European Union Foreign Ministers meeting in Brussels on Monday to determine whether to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, it is now more critical than ever that Europe act to ensure that there will be zero tolerance by the international community for transnational terrorism.

Sixth, this underscores the need to also provide the rebels with defensive aid -- such as anti-aircraft, antitank and defensive weapons -- not only to offset the offensive assaults, but to help protect civilians against indiscriminate bombardment. Admittedly such defensive assistance would have been much easier -- and effective -- 18 months ago, before the Iranian-Hezbollah strategic intervention, before the use of weapons of mass destruction with impunity, before Russia consolidated its military involvement, and before the jihadist infiltration of rebel forces.

Seventh, efforts to establish command and control structures within the rebel forces must be expanded and expedited, as some of the opposition militia groups - including thousands of foreign jihadist and al-Qaida linked fighters - continue to operate independently and, on occasion, criminally. According to a recent UN report, some rebels are themselves guilty of revenge killings, rape, torture, forced disappearances and recruiting child soldiers into their ranks. We must hold these individuals accountable and condition our support to rebel commanders upon firm commitments that civilians, particularly minorities, will be protected.

Eighth, there is a growing need to reinforce security around Syria's borders, particularly in the Golan Heights. As was widely reported, 21 UN peacekeepers patrolling the area were kidnapped in March by rebel fighters and subsequently released. Subsequently, many participating countries, such as Austria, Croatia, Japan and Canada, decided to withdraw their troops from the UNDOF peacekeeping mission. Moreover, rebels, including foreign extremists, have begun targeting Syrian government outposts around the Golan. Indeed, what was for decades Israel's most dormant frontier is now potentially its most dangerous, which has important implications for the Middle East as a whole.

Ninth, we must urge international donors to follow through on their humanitarian aid commitments, of which only 20 percent has been delivered. Moreover, much of the aid already supplied has inadvertently gone through the regime, which regulates the activity of relief organizations operating inside the country. Thus, aid often does not reach the rebel-controlled areas and civilians who need it most. In this regard, Canada must ensure that the $115 million of humanitarian assistance recently announced by the government is effectively transmitted to those individuals in need. Moreover, Canada must step up efforts to achieve the protection of refugees in the region and the reunification of families here in Canada. While the recently announced goal of accepting 1300 Syrian refugees into Canada by next year sends an important message, more must be done to expedite family based applications for the resettlement of Syrian refugees into Canada.

Tenth, the international community needs to support the Syrian National Coalition in its transition toward becoming an interim government, ensuring that it is representative of the whole of Syrian society.

It will be necessary to help the Coalition secure a strong foothold within rebel-controlled areas to offset the splintering of rebel militias and the increased leverage of jihadists.

Eleventh, Assad and his inner circle - and Hezbollah commanders - should be brought before the International Criminal Court for their grave violations of international law, including war crimes and crimes against humanity. This might have the added effect of lessening further Syrian criminality while encouraging more defections from the regime. Countries that have yet to support the Swiss initiative in this regard should do so immediately.

Twelfth, there needs to be a mandated deployment of a large international Arab-led peace protection force in Syria that will, inter alia, order troops and tanks back to barracks and bases, restore order and monitor compliance with the cessation of violence, and help secure the peaceful transition towards a post-Assad regime.

Thirteenth, the recent G8 communique conveyed neither the scale of the Syrian tragedy nor the necessary sense of urgency about what must be done. It gave the impression of an international community going through the motions as a bystander community rather than a protective one.

Finally, yet again, as UN Secretary-General Ban Kimoon and others have put it, "Loss of time means loss of lives." Every day, more Syrian civilians die, not because of what we have done, but because of what we have not done.

Irwin Cotler is a member of the Canadian Parliament, and a former minister of justice and attorney-general of Canada. An emeritus professor of law at McGill University, he is coeditor of The Responsibility to Protect: The Promise of Stopping Mass Atrocities in Our Time.

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