Credit: TMS illustration by M. Ryder/

Adrian Peracchio, a former foreign correspondent and editorial writer for Newsday, is a lecturer at LIU Post's Hutton House Lectures program.

 

The daily butchery Syrian President Bashar Assad has inflicted on his own people -- with some 7,500 Syrians already killed in his brutal determination to cling to power -- confronts the world with one of the most heart-rending moral and geopolitical dilemmas of our time.

On television and computer screens, we've seen the destruction of entire neighborhoods, children's bloody corpses carried in their parents' arms, protesters pleading desperately on cellphone cameras for someone, anyone, to help them in the yearlong uprising.

But no one has. And -- despite the call from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) yesterday for the United States to lead airstrikes on the nation -- no one likely will move to save Syrians from being massacred by their enraged autocrat. Too many vested interests and fears of involvement are blocking any help.

The international community has reacted to the Syrian nightmare with a pained paralysis. Faced with the Syrian atrocities, the United Nations -- nominally charged with preventing crimes against humanity -- is mired in political impotence. That's despite the UN's own doctrine of "responsibility to protect," which mandates a collective responsibility to protect civilians when states attack their own populations.

The doctrine, adopted after mass slaughter and death camps in Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s, says the world community must act to defend people from atrocities such as genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Few could argue that Syria today doesn't fit the bill.

But at the UN Security Council, intervention moves were blocked last month by vetoes from Russia and China. Russia, a historic ally of the country since Soviet days and still its primary arms supplier, maintains a naval base on Syria's narrow Mediterranean coast and sees close ties to the Assad regime as a way to project influence in the region. China won't agree to intervene in a sovereign nation's internal affairs; that precedent could be used against Beijing if a future Chinese uprising brings a brutal crackdown.

The United States has taken action in such situations before. The Clinton administration ignored the UN and acted on its own to bomb Serbia into submission in 1999, when things were as brutal in Kosovo as they are in Homs today. But Syria isn't Serbia, which was unlikely to ignite a regional conflict. Nor is Syria as easy a target as Libya, which had little strategic import and whose deranged leader had no friends or allies.

Aside from President Barack Obama's understandable reluctance to engage in another conflict in a Muslim nation while seeking re-election, there's a pervasive fear within security circles in Washington and Europe that a military action against Syria could ignite a regionwide conflict in one of the world's most sensitive zones. Syria's key allies are Iran and Hezbollah, the governing faction in neighboring Lebanon. Syria is at the center of a Shia power axis in a Sunni Arab region, linking the Shia minority Alawite tribe of Assad to the Shia leaderships of Hezbollah and Iran. A foreign intervention against Assad could suck in other major Shia powers to protect him.

Topping all this is an abiding irony: No one is making a convincing case that Syrian forces should be bombed to prevent them from killing thousands. Yet in Washington, there are serious arguments about the possible bombing of Iran's nuclear installations. That's a different story with its own set of moral and geopolitical calculations. But of course it's the same volatile region.

Finally, not knowing who could eventually rise to lead the Syrian insurgency -- could Islamic extremists gain the upper hand in a civil war? -- gives Western allies yet another reason to wait it out on the sidelines.

The dismal result of these calculations is that Assad's systematic slaughter is likely to continue unhindered. As usual, in Syria as elsewhere, moral arguments for intervention are trumped by geopolitical realism.