In March of 2011, President Obama ordered aerial military intervention over Libya because of concerns that a mass slaughter of civilians was imminent. With the help of the United States and allies, rebels were able to overthrow the regime of Moammar Gadhafi. Late last week, reports came out of Syria that more than 200 people were massacred in a village in the Hama region because of a government crackdown against rebels.
Civilians are indeed being slaughtered, and the world is silent.
Granted, the two situations are not identical. But the differences say much about the world and the state of relationships among traditional powers. The United Nations Security Council has a draft transition plan written by former Secretary General Kofi Annan that would allow for a peaceful transition of power in Syria. Britain has circulated a measure that would make the plan enforceable through a range of options from economic sanctions to military intervention. It would threaten immediate sanctions unless Syria stops using heavy weapons and removes its soldiers from cities and towns within 10 days.
Sanctions sound so tepid in the face of mass murders that have been committed for much of the 16-month conflict. And yet even that solution has bogged down because of opposition from Russia, whose deputy U.N. ambassador came out with the contradictory statement that "Anything can be negotiated, but we do not negotiate this."
Russia and China both have adopted the line that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is under attack from armed insurgents who are backed by Western powers and monarchs along the Sunni Gulf.
But even they must be starting to see that the tide is beginning to turn against Assad. That was bolstered last week when Nawaf al-Fares, Syria's ambassador to Iraq, defected and told the Syrian army to turn its guns on the "criminals" of the government.
As the West has learned, the Arab Spring has not necessarily resulted in a straight line of progress toward peaceful democracies. There are, to put it mildly, complications. Egypt offers a clear example of this. Syria's uprising also presents complications. It has a strong sectarian component to it. The rebel forces are primarily Sunni Muslims, and the military and government establishment are Alawites, a minority branch of Shiite Islam. The ultimate aim of the rebel forces is unclear.
What is clear, however, is that the slaughter of civilians must stop. It is impossible to establish an independent verification of events. However, it appears that, as insurgents establish footholds in cities and towns throughout Syria, government forces move in and kill everyone in sight.
That is not a legitimate way to establish power. The U.N.'s inability to agree on that point is sad, indeed.