There is no doubt whatsoever that what is occurring in Syria is a humanitarian tragedy. The Assad regime has concluded that Western governments do not have the will to back up their rhetoric with action, and so have accelerated the atrocity and mass slaughter to new levels. While reports once spoke of a dozen people being killed in a day, some recent reports from Syria suggest an order of greater magnitude is now the norm.
Human rights groups wring their hands that Russia and China are not on the same page at the UN Security Council, but representatives from several prominent groups hold out hope that there can be some sort of magic formula that will bring Moscow and Beijing onboard. Such hope is, of course, misplaced. Syria hosts Russia’s only military base outside the confines of the former Soviet Union, and Vladimir Putin will always prioritize strategic position above averting humanitarian tragedy.
The questions human rights groups need to face is whether it is moral to, in effect, sacrifice the lives of tens of thousands of Syrians upon the principle that no action is legitimate unless the United Nations says it is. They may not like the question framed in that way, but there is no avoiding it.
There are many military strategies which might provide immediate protection to the Syrian people. Max Boot and Reuel Marc Gerecht have discussed some of them. Syrians point out to me that limited airpower would be effective in stopping the pulverization of neighborhoods and towns by Syrian artillery. Syrian forces are afraid to set up mortars and artillery too close to urban areas, because residents will attack and lynch them. So much of the artillery barrages are launched from open fields, meaning that Western air forces could target the perpetrators with little risk of collateral damage.
It is time human rights groups recognize that the embrace of human rights and support for predominance of the United Nations in the international system are often mutually exclusive values, and be open about whether human rights advocates now place a political agenda above protecting and preserving human rights.