Syria: Burning Down the House

11/22/2011 01:42 pm ET | Updated Jan 22, 2012

Syria lives in a very flammable neighborhood, surrounded by Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Israel. The neighbors are getting very worried that the escalation of violence in Syria could quickly spread to surrounding nations, and are taking steps to prevent this from happening. It's time for the UN Security Council to support this effort and help form a neighborhood fire brigade that can prevent a civil war and protect the Syrian people.

Syria announced it was "in talks" with the Arab League to send civilian and military observers into the country in the hopes of ending the violence that has wracked the country for eight months.

But if experience tells us anything, President Bashar al-Assad's talk is cheap and is just permitting him more time for tactical stalling.

There are many tools available to protect civilians from violence, including establishing a no-fly zone or referring Assad to the International Criminal Court for prosecution for crimes against humanity.

But the best option available to have the greatest immediate impact for the Syrian people would be to back the Arab League's move and establish a UN-authorized and funded observer force that is led by the Arab League and comprised of regional forces.

A peacekeeping operation would have dual functionality: it could protect civilians and prevent a civil war, by working with all sides to establish a process for democratic reforms to take root.

The Arab League's involvement also gives credibility to the operation, avoiding the old "West versus Rest" dichotomy that was seen in the Libyan NATO-led intervention. It is also able to deploy much more rapidly than a UN observer force, which can take months to get on the ground after creating a mandate.

Every attempt at passing a UN Security Council resolution have been thwarted by recalcitrant behavior of Russia and China, including threatening to veto a resolution that was watered down specifically to attract their votes.

But with the Arab League taking the lead for protecting Syrian civilians, Russia and China's continued resistance to respond to the Assad regime could crumble. China has a long history of supporting the wishes of regional organizations like the Arab League, and would likely abstain on a Security Council resolution if the organization led the engagement in Syria. Russia dislikes being portrayed as "the bad guy" and would be pressured to abstain from a veto if China did as well.

The international community has agreed that there is need to protect civilians from genocide, mass atrocities, crimes against humanity and war crimes. This principle, known as the Responsibility to Protect, was described in a speech by Vice President Joe Biden as "the simple but novel concept that...states must shield their populations from atrocity." But the concurrence on the need to act doesn't mean we use a "one size fits all" approach on how we act.

In Libya, a military intervention was utilized as a tool of last resort. Assistance from Arab League neighbors to protect civilians in Syria would also be recognized as another case of enacting the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, making it the responsibility of first Syria's neighbors and then the entire international community working through the UN if Damascus cannot halt the mass atrocities currently inflaming the nation.

In the end, there must be a nonviolent means for Syrians to determine how they want to be governed. At this point, a robust referee role provided by their neighbors seems the best bet to achieve this. The Security Council should engage to help allow this to happen.

If Assad continues to act with impunity and grip on to power until the bitter end, his fate will end like Qaddafi, executed by the mob, denying justice to the Syrian people. It's time he accepted some help from his neighbors.