One Woman’s Proposal to Halt the Violence in Syria


March 2, 2012

As more bodies pile up in Syria’s besieged protest hubs, the international community has failed to find a solution to end the violence the U.N. estimates has killed more than 7,500 Syrians since an anti-government uprising broke out almost a year ago.

Over the past few months, one woman has driven the debate over whether and how the international community should intervene in the Syrian crisis. Former State Department Director of Policy Planning Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter, in writing and in media appearances, has offered one of the clearest outlines for a possible foreign intervention in Syria.

FRONTLINE spoke with Dr. Slaughter about her proposal for foreign military intervention in Syria, her response to some of her critics and what she believes is at stake if the international community ignores the crisis.

You’ve argued for the need to intervene in Syria on the basis of the responsibility to protect (R2P) doctrine — that if a state systemically abuses its own citizens, the responsibility to protect them shifts to the international community. Why do you believe the international community has the responsibility to intervene in Syria? What’s at stake?

“The situation gets worse and worse every day, but I think as long as there is any chance of a political settlement, combining diplomacy and humanitarian assistance, we have to keep pushing for it and doing everything we can.”

There was tremendous cynicism about [the use of] R2P docrtine [to intervene] Libya. There were many people across the Middle East who said why Libya? Why not Bahrain? Why not Yemen? Now as it turns out, in Yemen there was another way of diplomatic settlement. Bahrain is a very specific set of circumstances, but also the magnitude of the killing in Bahrain is not nearly what we saw in Libya or what we are seeing now in Syria.

I think its very important to make clear, to the extent we can, that [R2P] is a not a political tool, but [a doctrine for when] a government is committing crimes against humanity and there is any way to stop them, the international community does everything it can, including the use of force if necessary, at least through assistance or sometimes the direct use of force to protect them. …

And here in Syria, it seems to me if you don’t intervene, it could look to the world as though no one liked the Libyan government, and the international community was able to use [R2P] as a fig leaf for political reasons rather than as a serious doctrine.

The only chance we have long-term of really making governments think twice before they turn their guns on their own citizens, as is happening in Syria, is to give this doctrine some teeth.

The plan you’ve proposed is modeled around the need to create no-kill “buffer zones” along Syria’s borders with Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. How would those make a difference on the ground?

The first thing to say is the international community should support the Arab League and Turkey in assisting the Free Syrian Army [a loosely organized rebel force made up of disparate groups, including Syrian Army defectors] to create as many safe zones as possible alongside Syria’s borders, and defend them before the Syrian Army tries to overrun them.

Any [protection] would be better than no protection at all, which is where we are now. But the goal is an ink blot humanitarian strategy, whereby by establishing some peaceful no-kill zones — where it’s not just the opposition not being killed; it’s no killing period — around population centers, there is the possibility of their growing and spreading, particularly if local army forces would not in fact fire against them.

The idea is that you start with a few, and you make them in places where all Syrians are safe. And  then if Assad tries to overrun them, you provide some weaponry. If [Assad] is going to use heavy tanks and mortars, you could even use drones to take those out.

So the point is to put in motion enough assistance to allow a humanitarian alternative to what’s happening now.

You mention giving the rebels some weaponry. What kinds of weapons and under what conditions?

My proposal is that you can create these zones near the borders. … But if you’re going to establish these zones in population centers, you need anti-sniper weapons, you need some anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, but at least initially, you don’t need huge floods of arms.

The point would be you would make contact with the local coordinating committees and groups of soldiers and provide the arms necessary to establish and then to defend a safe zone. The operations  would be conducted with special forces on the ground, real time intelligence, and really targeting defense against troops moving on one of these kill zones.

So if you say this weapons assistance is contingent upon these groups taking defensive actions only, for example fighting off the Syrian Army, what is to prevent these rebels — as some of your critics have suggested they would do — from using those weapons for offensive actions, like targeting Syrian government buildings?

You would supply these arms for defensive purposes, but you cannot stop individual soldiers, once they have weapons, from firing them however they like. What you can do is develop a whole program, along the lines that I’m suggesting, that makes clear the intelligence, the assistance on the ground from special forces, the continuation of all of that, is dependent upon protecting these zones, rather than actively attacking government sites.

And at the same time, the political process is ongoing. This is all to the point of getting to a political solution while safeguarding as many lives as possible. The situation gets worse and worse every day, and we may have [let this go on] too far, but I think as long as there is any chance of a political settlement, combining diplomacy and humanitarian assistance, we have to keep pushing for it and doing everything we can.

Others, like Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), have suggested arming the Syrian rebels, as was done in Libya. Do you believe that’s a good idea?

That really plays directly into Assad’s hands.

“If outside powers start sending in arms in to different groups … you are absolutely creating what [Assad] says he’s fighting, and it delegitimizes the ability of neighboring states to act because it’s no longer a government that’s massacring people who are largely peaceful.”

From the beginning, Assad has described the [opposition] as armed groups and terrorists groups.  He has wanted to say from the beginning that this was not peaceful protest; this was not what we’ve seen in other countries across the Middle East; this was something unique to Syria, armed and fomented from outside. So from my point of view, if outside powers start sending in arms in to different groups — and remember, there are many different groups; The Free Syrian Army is an umbrella label, not a disciplined force — you are absolutely creating what [Assad] says he’s fighting, and it delegitimizes the ability of neighboring states to act because it’s no longer a government that’s massacring people who are largely peaceful.

So how is your plan to provide some weapons assistance different from these other calls to arm the rebels? Why doesn’t this also play into Assad’s hands?

My proposal would take place in the context of a formal plan — adopted by the Arab League and Turkey and endorsed by many other countries — to create humanitarian zones and to enable the people on the ground through direct assistance — both weapons, intelligence and some special forces — to create those zones.

The difference is in terms of the [specific] context of what is the plan, what is the overall goal, what kinds of weapons would be supplied under what conditions; whereas their proposal is you send in whatever arms are needed to wage a civil war.

You’ve said Turkey is in the best position to show the Assad regime how serious the international community is. Turkey raised the idea of creating a “buffer zone” along its border with Syria several months ago. Why has it yet to do so?

Turkey is afraid that if it actually sends troops over the border, that Syria will take that as an act of war and respond on Turkish territory, which is an enormous escalation of the current conflict.

What should Turkey be doing right now?

I think Turkey should be actively working with the Arab League to develop this kind of a plan. This plan has to be at least approved by [both].

Turkey keeps talking about doing something like a buffer zone, but then they actually have to push to the next step. Because what’s happened is [the Arab League and Turkey have] called for the political transition and nothing has happened. They’ve sent in monitors, and that didn’t work. They have to take the next step.

Turkey is a critical country because it’s going to get flooded with refugees. There are already some 70,00 refugees in Lebanon, and there would be equally that many in Turkey. And it’s up to Turkey, as the biggest neighboring country, to keep the pressure up.

The countries in the neighborhood are the most affected and have the greatest legitimacy to act. The UN charter talks about threats to peace and security, either international or regional, and an ongoing civil war in Syria rapidly becomes a threat to regional peace and security. So Turkey, Jordan — and Iraq can say they’re interested — Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, they are all in the region and bear the brunt of stabilization, refugees and conflicts spilling into their territory.

I think Turkey [is also unique because it] has also asserted its status as an important power and made clear that it was wants to play an active role in the Middle East. One of the responsibilities of leadership is taking action.

A major obstacle for international consensus on intervention has been fears of Syria’s increasingly fractured opposition. Syria’s most high-profile opposition group, the Syran National Council, split last week. What can be done to unite Syria’s opposition?

The best way to unite Syria’s opposition is just the force of events and the recognition on the part of the Syrians themselves that unless they bury their differences, they can’t get any assistance. There’s nothing individual countries can do to unite them. But we can create conditions where there’s a payoff for doing that, whether that is diplomatic recognition or other kinds of assistance.

In Syria, I would say, that working as closely as possible with the local coordinating committees [local opposition groups on the ground] to the extent you can.

Unlike in Libya, I think there is much more of a contrast here between outsiders and insiders. Remember in Iraq, you had exiled communities versus people on the ground. And in Libya, the people in Benghazi were the people on the ground. … I think the value of the Syrian National Council [which was created largely outside of Syria and is made up of many expatriate Syrians]  is more as part of a political strategy, that there is an interlocutor, that there’s a group who can say to minority communities across Syria that here is our transition plan, here’s a draft constitution. That’s the kind of thing that the National Transitional Council did in Libya, but that was part of a political process.

When it comes to actually humanitarian assistance on the ground, I would work through the people on the ground. There are I think at least 14 local coordinating committees who are doing the best they can under incredibly difficult circumstances.

One criticism has also been the failure on the part of these groups to reach out to Syria’s minority groups — Christians, Alawites, Druze and Kurds — and convey to them their place in a post-Assad Syria. When can be done about that?

I do think that ultimately if some kind of plan can be issued for transition, or if the Syrian National Council endorses an Arab League plan which guarantees that minority rights will be respected, it is possible that peacekeepers could be deployed, absolutely, during early days to prevent revenge killings.

My proposal was also essentially not just to tell minority communities [their rights will be respected], but to show them by example. If you can create zones where there is no killing, you can demonstrate that this again is not sectarian, but political in ways that I think frankly might have more impact than any amount of words.

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