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In our opinion: Humanitarian disaster is unfolding in Syria; world is watching idly

Published: Friday, Sept. 28 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this Sunday, July 29, 2012 photo, Free Syrian Army soldiers are seen in a vehicle at the border town of Azaz, some 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of Aleppo, Syria.

Turkpix, Associated Press

A catastrophic humanitarian disaster is unfolding in Syria, and the world is watching helplessly. Fourteen years ago, President Bill Clinton apologized for his failure to intervene militarily to stop the slaughter in Rwanda. This week, leaders of the countries that make up the United Nations met in New York City to pontificate on the world's most vexing problems, while a slaughter of at least 1,000 Syrians a week (according to estimates) stood as a shameful example of how ineffective the U.N. truly is at resolving problems.

The situation is horrifying. It also is not easily resolved.

Unlike in Rwanda, the Syrian crisis has implications for the long-term interests of many nations, including the United States.

The rebels seeking to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad include some hard-line foreign jihadists. The United States is reluctant to aid a group that, should it assume power, may ally itself with Iran and against U.S. interests. China and Russia, meanwhile, stand in the way of any U.N. action to end the violence because of their alliances with the Syrian regime.

President Barack Obama made the situation worse by indicating the United States won't intervene unless Assad begins using chemical weapons against rebel forces. In effect, this let Assad know he is safe to use any sort of violence short of this against his people, without fear of any outside interference.

And by all indications he is carrying out such a ghastly policy with impunity. Since March, more than 30,000 Syrians have died, according to estimates from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Of those, only 7,000 were either soldiers or members of Assad's security forces. The rest were civilians, including children.

Reuters reports a steady and enormous flow of refugees out of Syria and into neighboring Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey. This flow could total 700,000 by the end of the year and is believed to already number 294,000. As many as 2.5 million Syrians are in need of aid and basic supplies, U.N. aid agencies report.

The problem is approaching Rwandan proportions and seems destined to grow worse, as neither side in the conflict appears close to gaining the upper hand.

The United Nations may not be able to intervene, even with air strikes, without injecting itself into the side of the rebels. But that is rapidly becoming irrelevant. Someone needs to be on the side of humanity.

When Obama decided to organize air strikes over Libya during a rebellion there, he said it was to head off an imminent slaughter of Libyan civilians. The intervention succeeded in helping rebel forces gain a victory over dictator Moammar Gadhafi, but it also accomplished its stated goal, saving innocent lives. Despite that help, however, it did not keep regional Islamic radicals from attacking a U.S. consulate in Libya earlier this month, killing four people, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya.

There may be no way to curry favor with some elements in the Middle East. And in Syria, the stakes are much higher than in Libya in terms of international power interests. But the people being murdered or displaced likely have little appreciation for political nuances. They want help, and they want it now.

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