Leaders grapple over what to do about Syria
By STEVEN BEARDSLEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 3, 2013
MUNICH — With a stalemate in the United Nations and reluctance among Western nations to use military force, the international community has had little influence on the situation in Syria.
Frustration over that status quo 22 months into Syria’s civil war occasionally bubbled to the top of the Munich Security Conference, as foreign leaders grasped for a path forward and considered their collective responsibility for failures.
“One day, we will go and see all who have died and we will be shocked, and we will all bear responsibility,” Qatar Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabir Al-Thani said during a panel discussion Sunday.
More than 60,000 people have died since the beginning of the war, most of them civilians killed by the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, according to Kenneth Roth, director of Human Rights Watch, who addressed the conference on Friday. More than 700,000 Syrians have become refugees, and more have been internally displaced.
Roth called for international humanitarian assistance that, if necessary, worked around the stalled Security Council. Russia has backed the Assad regime through much of the war, and, with China, vetoed Security Council efforts to condemn or respond to the violence.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the audience Friday his government would not support a proposed humanitarian corridor into rebel-held areas, believing it would only create more violence.
Sen. John McCain pushed for the use of NATO missile batteries deploying near the Syrian border in Turkey to assist rebel forces by downing Syrian warplanes. McCain said he fears the West is encouraging extremist ideology by failing to get involved.
“We should be ashamed of our collective failure to come to the aid of the Syrian people, but more than that we should be deeply, deeply concerned,” McCain said. “The conflict in Syria is breeding a whole new generation of extremists.”
This year’s conference is the second since the start of the Syrian conflict, and the first time it included a representative from the Syrian opposition, Moaz al-Khatib.
Al-Khatib, who met separately with Lavrov and Vice President Joe Biden, has been criticized by fellow opposition members for his offer to meet with Syrian government officials, a possibility he raised again on Saturday. During a panel with U.N. Special envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi and Lavrov Friday, Al-Khatib again called for strict conditions around any such meeting, including the release of thousands of political prisoners. According to media reports, Lavrov privately invited Al-Khatib to Moscow.
During that panel discussion, Al-Khatib pleaded not only for military and political assistance but sharply criticized Western concerns about rebels, among them that Sunni militants comprise a major part of the insurgency and that rebel forces are not inclusive of Alawite, Christian and Kurdish minorities.
“No one is talking about these massacres,” he said. “It’s all about terrorists, it’s all about the rights of minorities. We are living a true tragedy.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi on Sunday said that, as Syria’s sovereign leader, Assad could only be remove through election, which he said Assad himself suggested.
“If you are for democracy, let the Syrian people decide,” he said. “On your own supervision. Put the ballot boxes there.”
Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, offered another solution.
“I think we have to have the United States up front and not leading from behind,” he said.
Brahimi on Friday urged international action, calling it the only solution to quell a country being torn apart by war.
“The Syrians themselves cannot do anything itself yet about this,” he said. “The region cannot do anything about this. All that’s left is the international community.”