After three stalled diplomatic attempts to stop Syrian President Bashar Assad's government from killing thousands of unarmed civilians, it's time for the international community to intervene. The United States should partner with its allies to establish safe zones on the borders of countries neighboring Syria.
Since popular demonstrations began more than a year ago, Syria's democracy movement has evolved into a national uprising. Like their counterparts in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Syrians took to the streets to demand political reforms. In response, the Assad regime has offered lip service to reform but in fact has confronted peaceful protesters with military force and a campaign of atrocities.
After shelling entire neighborhoods to rubble, the regime has blocked humanitarian aid from reaching injured civilians. Doctors and nurses who try to administer aid have been targeted. Tens of thousands are suffering. The United Nations estimates that as many as 17,000 Syrians have been killed during the 14-month uprising.
The international community is facing a crisis reminiscent of Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur. We must confront ourselves, take stock of our values and decide how we will respond. Addressing this crisis will require coordinated action and a strong commitment from many nations, but leadership from the United States is essential.
The international community has a responsibility to protect innocent populations from mass atrocities when repeated diplomatic efforts fail. We committed ourselves to this principle at the United Nations World Summit in 2005 with the Responsibility to Protect initiative.
Several nations, including the United States, decided they would not stand by whenever war crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing or genocide are perpetrated, or when despotic government leaders decimate their country's population.
U.N. Special Envoy Kofi Annan's proposal is meeting resistance, and even U.N. officials have acknowledged that the first group of observers has not stopped the killing. Activists on the ground estimate that 500 people have been killed since the negotiated U.N. "cease-fire" was enacted April 12. The Assad regime has shown no regard for prior agreements. Still, the international community should hold Assad to his commitment and accelerate the dispatch of all 300 U.N. observers.
Even as the United States supports the U.N. plan, we must take additional steps to address the humanitarian crisis. Turkey has discussed creating protected safe zones within its borders. We should encourage these efforts and commit our support.
We should also be prepared for the possibility of Turkey invoking Article 5 of the NATO treaty, since the Syrian army has fired into Turkish territory. Establishing safe zones in Turkey or another country on Syria's border will allow international partners to administer humanitarian relief and better organize the inflow of Syrian refugees.
Taking these steps would put Bashar Assad on notice that the international community will not allow him to repeat his father's brutality. In 1982, Hafez Assad, presided over the slaughter of 20,000 people in Hama, Syria. The United States has acted in the past to prevent similar humanitarian crises, but sometimes too late.
We hesitated in Bosnia and Rwanda and regretted it when hundreds of thousands died, were maimed, tortured or raped. But we acted wisely in Libya, prevented a massacre, and maintained the democratic momentum of the Arab Spring -- until now.
It is true that establishing a safe zone on the border of Syria involves significant risk. What if the Syrian army targets the safe zone? What if Assad blocks refugees' access to it? How long should the safe zone exist? And who will pay for it?
These are questions we must seriously consider. But they should not chill us into inaction. The United States must lead the international community in establishing safe zones to protect innocent Syrian civilians and send a clear message to Assad: the killing has to stop.
One thing is clear: Assad has proven himself to be a merciless butcher who will kill and murder and torture as long as we let him.
No more Bosnias, Darfurs and Rwandas. It's time for the world to act.
Keith Ellison, a Democrat, represents Minnesota's Fifth Congressional District in the U.S. House.
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