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When we were in Dubai in February of 2012, we met a Syrian national at couch surfing party we attended with our host.
Nellu and I had tossed around the idea of visiting Damascus on our trip. That was not going to happen. The conflict in Syria was almost a year old at that point. Russia and China had recently vetoed a U.N. Security Council draft resolution calling for an end to the violence. And the Syrian government was still claiming the extent of the conflict and crackdown had been greatly exaggerated.
We expressed concern over the conflict and asked our new friend about his family.
He still had a brother in Syria. His brother had been out in the streets during the protests only to go inside and hear from the state-owned media that it was all a farce.
The big question that night—would the U.S. intervene?
Of course the U.S. would intervene in Syria, our new friend said, just look at what they did in Libya. (The technicality that it was a NATO-led intervention is apparently as lost on the rest of the world as it is on the U.S.)
In so many words, I told him, I wouldn’t count on it. (I don’t know why I said that.)
By the end of the month, the U.N. would estimate 7,500 people had been killed since the clash began.
In the last year and a half, we’ve watched this conflict dissolve into an all out war.
Peace talks continue to stall. New evidence suggests that both sides used chemical weapons. And the death toll and destruction mounts.
The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria issued a report to the UN Human Rights Council concluding that “crimes against humanity have become a daily reality in Syria.” And it’s coming from both sides:
“Government forces and affiliated militia have committed murder, torture, rape, forcible displacement, enforced disappearance and other inhumane acts. Many of these crimes were perpetrated as part of widespread or systematic attacks against civilian populations and constitute crimes against humanity. War crimes and gross violations of international human rights law – including summary execution, arbitrary arrest and detention, unlawful attack, attacking protected objects, and pillaging and destruction of property – have also been committed. The tragedy of Syria’s 4.25 million internally displaced persons is compounded by recent incidents of IDPs being targeted and forcibly displaced.
Anti-Government armed groups have also committed war crimes, including murder, sentencing and execution without due process, torture, hostage-taking and pillage. They continue to endanger the civilian population by positioning military objectives in civilian areas. The violations and abuses committed by anti-Government armed groups did not, however, reach the intensity and scale of those committed by Government forces and affiliated militia.”
I am haunted by the exchange that night in Dubai and others that we had with people from many different countries. Love us or hate us, the world still looks to us-the U.S. We’ve been telling them could and should since we got our name on the map. (Nellu says we’re the Coca-Cola of freedom.) So do we have a responsibility to show up when things get bad?
Why did we intervene in Libya but not in Syria. The official answers is because it’s complicated and it is.
“In Libya, I thought we had to help with respect to Libya, because the leader of the country stood up and said, ‘We are going to go into Benghazi, and we are going to go house to house, and we are going to kill you like dogs.’ And I thought the international community had an obligation, knowing what was happening and going to happen, to try to make a difference. And we were able to because you had a different situation in Libya. You didn’t have the kind of sectarian divide — though you had tribal — but not sectarian divide that you have in the more complicated situation in Iran — in Syria, because you had Hezbollah coming from Lebanon, you have Iran involved, you have Russia sending support. It’s a very much more complex and different situation from Libya.”
So this is my question today: What should we do when things are complicated?