Today We Are All Syrians

It breaks my heart to watch Syria explode into violence. Let's face it: the international community has failed miserably in Syria, giving President Bashar al-Assad a "license to kill," in the words of the Qatari foreign minister. Over the weekend, Russia and China again irresponsibly used their veto power in the Security Council to block a resolution condemning Assad, abandoning innocent Syrian civilians who are being massacred daily. All 13 other Security Council members supported the resolution.

This is just the latest in a series of missed opportunities for the international community to step in and stop the violence of Assad's regime against peaceful protestors. The double-veto occurred the same weekend that the Syrian military massacred at least 300 civilians in Homs, bombarding neighborhoods with mortar shells and gunfire that wounded hundreds more. Unmistakably, Assad has been emboldened by China's and Russia's votes, knowing that as long as he has their support, there will be no international retribution for his crimes against humanity.

As the situation deteriorates, as the death toll rises and as the violence wages on, once nonviolent resisters to Assad's tyranny have increasingly taken up arms in what they now see as their only option to gain their freedom and basic rights. It is now almost impossible that conflict in Syria will end without more bloodshed or more unnecessary loss of life. International and regional institutions attempting to negotiate a peaceful solution have come to a complete standstill.

The failure of the Arab League's observer mission has greatly decreased the legitimacy of Arab League action in the region. Effective U.N. action is also all but out of the question. China and Russia have squashed Security Council action, knowing that acknowledging the right of Syrian opposition to exercise their rights to free speech and to protest would not sit well with the opposition leaders within their nations, sitting in prison because of their own resistance efforts. U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, said she was "disgusted" by the actions of Russia and China and that "any further bloodshed that flows will be on their hands."

As it becomes clear that the international community will not protect them, Syrians are increasingly concluding that civil war is their last hope. Omar Shakir, an activist from Homs, the city at the center of the protest movements, said, "Until now there is not civil war, but if the international community continues like this, just watching and doing nothing, there will be." Activists and rebel soldiers are increasingly becoming members of the Free Syrian Army, an armed resistance movement that claims to now have control of several towns throughout Syria.

Civil war in Syria would have serious repercussions throughout much of the region and even the world as a whole. First and foremost is the sheer loss of life. More than 6,000 people have died in the resistance movement so far and any escalation in conflict will mean an exponential increase in wounded and casualties. Further, any such conflict would likely quickly fall upon sectarian lines, with Assad's minority Alawite Shia sect pitted against the nation's Sunni majority. Rivals based on these alliances would cause repercussions in nearby Iraq and Lebanon, two nations with their own sectarian disunity, not to mention the economic ramifications as refugees flood these neighboring countries.

Perhaps even more seriously, any conflict within Syria would quickly disintegrate into a proxy-war, with Russia and Iran propping up Assad's government (they both have proven willing with recent arms deals, including a reported $550 million deal between Russia and Assad's government) and Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and potentially some NATO members backing rebels and opposition to Assad. Recent reports on Iran's development of a nuclear weapon has raised tension amongst world leaders, with Israel and even the U.S. hinting at military action against Iran, increasing the likelihood that the war would spread beyond regional borders. We could be talking about much more than the civil war of a relatively small Middle Eastern country -- we could be talking about the next World War.

The inability of both the Arab League and the U.N. to stop Assad's brutality is the frustrating result of a lack of global tools and mechanisms to rapidly prevent conflict and intervene when a government begins to use force against its own people for blatant political reasons.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said of the vote, "It undermines the role of the United Nations and the international community in this period when the Syrian authorities must hear a unified voice calling for an immediate end to its violence against the Syrian people." U.S. Secretary of State Clinton referred to the UN Security Council as "neutered," adding that the U.S. will seek international cooperation with allies outside of the Security Council to keep the pressure on Assad up.

When a nation's rule of law has broken down completely, the international community needs to know exactly how and when to step in to prevent human rights violations from occurring. We need to make it clear to dictators and tyrants around the world that the global society will not allow force or coercion to be a legitimate method of control. The ongoing conflict in Syria has pointed out just how far we are from truly fulfilling our Responsibility to Protect.

The failure of the international community to prevent genocide and crimes against humanity in nations like Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur led to a resounding affirmation of the Responsibility to Protect, the idea that we could "never again" let such atrocities occur. But how can we actually do this job when our international institutions are nowhere near strong enough to address these issues?

How can the global structure prevent crimes against humanity when any permanent member of the Security Council can veto action against their allies? How can international actors save lives when the U.N.'s Human Rights Council can only make recommendations that other institutions can continue to ignore? How can humankind stop mass atrocities when it takes months for an international peacekeeping mission to deploy?

I am not advocating for unilateral American action on these issues, although the United States should be leading such efforts to support democratic values worldwide. Rather, we need global institutions that actually have the might to prevent genocide and mass atrocities. Not that long ago, true world peace seemed like an unattainable dream. But we've taken significant steps in recent years to end conflict and prevent violence. Baby steps perhaps, but we're starting to realize that we can achieve that dream, if we work together to construct the mechanisms for protecting civilians.

Today we are all Syrians. The violence inflicted in the name of power is a lash across all of our backs. Humanity has spent centuries developing the tools for war, pouring billions of dollars into building missiles and nuclear weapons. I'd say it's high time we spend even half that effort developing the tools for peace.

Thanks to our research associate Julia Bunting for her contributions to this piece.