The fear of ‘Mission Creep’ was the main reason put forward by western powers for not interfering in Syria when President Bashar al-Assad started killing his own people. Despite clear early evidence that civilians including women and children were being targeted at the beginning of the Arab Spring revolt in 2011, next to nothing was done to formally criminalize the regime, let alone to bring it to justice, so attempting to halt the bloodshed.
Syria was viewed as a special case. The international community soon decided to issue arrest warrants against tyrants like Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, but Syria’s regime was considered far too dangerous to intimidate.
Instead, Syria was viewed as a special case. The international community soon decided to issue arrest warrants against tyrants like Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, but Syria’s regime was considered far too dangerous to intimidate. The principal fear was that Assad’s supporters including Russia and Iran would come to his assistance, pitting them in a potentially catastrophic confrontation with countries like the USA, Britain and France, all of whom have sided with the insurgents. Opposing groups in the Middle East would play on the discord, using it towards their own ends and thus escalating the violence. All-out war in arguably the most volatile area of the world was deemed a real, and indeed likely, consequence of positive action to stop Assad.
Doing nothing certainly avoided the initial risk of ‘Mission Creep’ but now this sinister jargon can be redefined as something conceivably far worse – ‘Crisis Creep’. With a slow but terrifying inevitability, the Syrian revolt soon turned into armed insurgency, and then civil war. Now a regional conflict is still threatened. Words like genocide are also coming to be associated with a crisis which, to the shame of the international community, has now been raging for well over two years.
The developing horror story has seen Assad murdering thousands of his own citizens in a manner which Colonel Qaddafi never got close to doing. A conservative estimate of 70,000 Syrians is the death toll to date, while over one million refugees have fled to neighboring Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Four million Syrians – a fifth of the population – have been displaced internally. Now there is talk of poison gas being used by both sides – a development which, if true, would lower the conflict to new depths of barbarity.
Immune to the carnage?
Navi Pillay, the most senior United Nations human rights official, last week highlighted images of corpses piling at massacre scenes. She is convinced that people across the world are becoming immune to the carnage, including crimes against humanity, saying: ‘We should not reach the point in this conflict where people become numb to the atrocious killing of civilians.’
Assad’s increasingly instable regime has, meanwhile, joined forces with Iran and Hezbollah to vow retribution against Israel for airstrikes on a military facility in Damascus. Israel has always claimed it would stay out of Syria, but that the fear of surface-to-air missiles being transported to Lebanon, Hezbollah’s base, forced it to take action. Hezbollah declared it was now ready to receive ‘game-changing weapons’ from Syria in its fight to win back the Golan Heights, which Israel captured during the 1967 war against Syria. There are now allegations that Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to sell Syria surface-to-air missiles which will make the kind of NATO air intervention seen in Libya extremely perilous.
What the West and its allies offer in the face of such diplomatic chaos is constant jargon and weak-willed platitudes. Surely prosecutors should, at the very least, be threatening Assad and his lieutenants with indictments at the International Criminal Court? The massively wealthy and influential Gulf states should also be brokering possible peace agreements. Instead, a sense of slow motion catastrophe shames all who did nothing about the Syrian crisis in the first place, and makes the situation ultimately far more dangerous. Mission Creep may have been worth avoiding, but as far as the security of the world is concerned, Crisis Creep is proving just as terrifying.