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Editorial: Atrocities in Syria must be stopped

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | AUGUST 29, 2013 5:00 AM

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Over the past two years, the Syrian government, led by President Bashar al-Assad, has been fighting several groups of rebel forces following a harsh crackdown on protesters during the 2011 Arab Spring. The United Nations reported in July that more than 100,000 people have been killed so far.

This war has turned particularly brutal with alleged atrocities on all sides of the civil war committed both by government and many loosely affiliated rebel battalions, though the Assad regime has been responsible for far more death and destruction than the rebels.

“Anti-government armed groups have committed war crimes, including murder, torture, hostage-taking, and attacking protected objects,” a report from the United Nations stated. “… 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.”

An especially egregious chemical-weapons attack allegedly occurred in the capital of Damascus last week during a government bombing, prompting the United States and some of its allies to consider military intervention.

The United Nations is investigating whether chemical weapons were used, though General Secretary Ban Ki-moon has said it will take a few more days to definitively prove this.

Nevertheless, Bart Janssens, the director of operations for Doctors Without Borders, has said the circumstances following the alleged attack “strongly indicate mass exposure to a neurotoxic agent. This would constitute a violation of international humanitarian law, which absolutely prohibits the use of chemical and biological weapons.”

Human Rights Watch reports that the affected areas in Damascus were predominantly residential, without any nearby industrial or military facilities that would have been strategic targets.

In spite of these horrific crimes, on Wednesday, Russia was unwilling to allow the U.N. Security Council to take more serious measures against Syria, making a course of action through the United Nations virtually impossible.

The Daily Iowan Editorial Board believes that to allow such indiscriminate slaughter and blatant violations of international law is not an option. However, the United States, which must not intervene alone, needs to avoid getting caught in a serious armed conflict on the ground; the Syrian Civil War is extremely complex both ethnically and religiously.

Diplomatic pressure may still be an option. If Assad thinks the United States is about to attack, that may intimidate him enough to back down. The United States also has strong diplomatic relations with the governments of Turkey and the Gulf States that have been funding the rebels, meaning they could pressure the rebels to come to the negotiating table with the Assad government.

If diplomacy fails, the United States and its allies in Europe that are weighing the possibility of military intervention need to choose their course of action wisely.

Limited air strikes, which the Obama administration has suggested as a possible option, obviously won’t stop the bloodshed, but chemical weapons are not something to ignore. They have been outlawed by the international community since the end of World War I, and while they may not be nuclear missiles, their indiscriminate use, especially on a civilian population, is morally indefensible.

Yes, the Syrian opposition is extremely scattered, and even if a new regime replaces Assad, there’s no guarantee that it would be friendly to the United States.

But that doesn’t matter. The United States and its allies must stand up for basic human rights when confronted with a dictator who apparently has few reservations about using them on civilian populations. If nothing else, Assad will know that there are serious consequences for using chemical weapons and that if their use continues, he and his administration will be punished.


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