As the death toll in Syria climbs (it’s likely as high as 120 000) and the Obama administration claims to be waiting for “more specific information” regarding the evidence of chemical weapon use (Obama said recently that the US has evidence of the US of chemical weapons in Syria), people are beginning to draw comparisons between the Rwandan Genocide and the civil war in Syria.
“Syria may prove to be Obama’s Rwanda,” writes Peter Feaver.
It is worth noting that in addition to the mass amount of civilian deaths, sectarian tensions and crimes against humanity, Rwanda and Syria are similar in terms of the U.S.’s response to their respective crises: both came on the heels of unsuccessful U.S. international ventures (Rwanda on the heels of Somalia, Syria on the heels of Iraq and Afghanistan).
The UN Security Council failed to act effectively in both situations, thus placing more responsibility in the eyes of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) on individual actors. Both were situations in which the U.S. government was actually strategically aligned against the government committing the crimes against humanity (Hutu-controlled Rwanda and Assad’s Syria), neither represented a direct threat to U.S. national interests (as opposed to, say, the situation in Libya, which presented a direct threat to oil prices and thus the economy in the U.S.), and the U.S. largely left both crises to fate.
Additionally, the situations in both Rwanda and Syria will leave future generations to ask just where the world was when the atrocities were being committed.
On the 18th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, Obama promised the post-Rwanda world that “it would never happen again.” The UN subsequently developed the R2P initiative in direct response to the Rwandan genocide in order to prevent the international community from grossly neglecting human rights again.
Unfortunately for the victims of Syria, sometimes words are only words. This is not to say that R2P, since its adoption in 2005, has not saved lives — it certainly did in both Libya and Côte d’Ivoire.
That being said, as a world that has witnessed the catastrophic results of international inaction in the face of crimes against humanity, it is difficult to read about Syria, especially now that chemical weapons have been thrown into the mix, and not wonder how ruthlessly history will tell the story of those who simply watched.
It is hard to say exactly how long the arsenal of evidence of chemical weapon use in Syria has been building, given that the original allegation of the use of Agent 15 in Homs on December 23rd (the White House received a secret cable from the U.S. consul general in Istanbul, Scott Frederic Kilner, at the beginning of January providing evidence) was dismissed by the Obama administration on January 16th. The White House said that “we found no credible evidence to corroborate or to confirm that chemical weapons were used.”
This statement came after an administration official had said, “we can’t definitely say 100%, but Syrian contacts made a compelling case that Agent 15 was used in Homs on Dec 23.”
“It’s incidents like this that lead to a mass-casualty event,” the official continued. Well, he wasn’t wrong. If the death toll at the beginning of January 2013 was estimated at 60,000, then the death toll has roughly doubled since the first reports of chemical weapons.
Regardless of when the evidence became conclusive, it now is. “Mr. President, how many uses of chemical weapons does it take to cross a red line against the use of chemical weapons?” asks Anne-Marie Slaughter, professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University.
Evidence of chemical weapons use is incredibly inconvenient for an administration that has tried desperately to avoid being dragged into Syria, and not without a laundry list of good reasons: military spending cuts, a reordered Pentagon, the 2012 election, failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a stated Middle East strategy limited to the counterterrorism campaign, among others. Additionally, action against Assad has now become action against Russia, China, and Iran.
Evidence of chemical weapon use is even more inconvenient given that on August 20 Obama warned Assad that he would not tolerate the use of chemical weapons (which are illegal under international law) against the Syrian people, saying, “There would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical-weapons front or the use of chemical weapons. That would change my calculations significantly.” He has since referred to chemical weapons as “red line” for possible intervention.
Again we see a parallel to Rwanda. “The Clinton administration did not want to acknowledge that genocide was taking place in Rwanda because the United States would have been legally bound by the Genocide Convention of 1948 to intervene to stop the killing,” points Slaughter.
The widening gap between words and actions in the Obama administration has implications that reach beyond Syria. Now that Obama admitted that he has seen evidence of the use of chemical weapons, the world will learn whether or not American threats can be taken seriously.
As the Economist wrote at the end of April, “Mr. Obama is leading Mr. Assad to believe that his threat is empty. For a man trying to persuade the world that Iran will cross a red line if it builds a nuclear bomb, that is the wrong message.” Chemical weapons were supposedly a red line. If Obama fails to remember that now-famous statement, the other red lines he has supposedly drawn will begin to fade in the eyes of the international community.
YaleGlobal argues that the implications reach further than Syria or even a nuclear Iran. “What’s at stake in Syria is more than Damascus’ future. Successful application of R2P will make a statement that Libya was not a fluke. It will send a message: For governments that murder their people to stay in power, the international community will assure that the survivor will be not the regime but the people.”
So now, Mr. President, given a death toll equivalent to wiping Ann Arbor, Charleston, or Santa Clara off of the map, given that Assad has crossed the “red line” you set for him, given that Iran is waiting to see whether or not you can be taken seriously, and given the lesson of Rwanda less than two decades ago, now might be a good time to do something.
Anne Jamison, Georgetown University.