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UN must step in to protect Syrians

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While post-election attention focuses on the looming battle between U.S. President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans about the fiscal cliff, it is important also to remember the abyss in Syria. Thousands are being killed every month. The UN predicts four million will be in need of humanitarian aid by next year. More than 400,000 refugees are overwhelming the bordering states. Perhaps most ominously, Israel and the Syrian government are beginning to trade salvos in the Golan Heights -- all a consequence of a vicious civil war the international community has, through its failure to act, allowed to become a threat to regional peace and security.

Daily bombing of civilian neighbourhoods, deadly sniper attacks and summary executions have become the norm in Syria. This is a war without obvious end where most of the casualties are innocent people, not combatants.

What was once a spontaneous uprising for democracy has now deteriorated into a nasty power struggle. It appears "the rebels" (which are actually a composite of Syrian and foreign elements), are now, like the government they want to overthrow, committing war crimes and violating human rights. Although the anti-government forces have recently reached agreement to unify, it remains to be seen whether a group of such rivals can remain united for long. Ominously, the voices of women -- among the first to be raised against the tyranny of President Bashar Assad -- are now being ignored in the incipient rebel opposition councils.

It didn't need to come to this. Indeed, the international community had begun making progress in protecting civilians from rapacious governments. But in the case of Syria, with deadlock at the Security Council, America distracted by elections and Europe consumed with fiscal woes, the spiral has been left to accelerate downwards.

The U.S. has now re-elected a president who understands the priority of protecting civilians. He expressed it in his previous foreign policy statements and demonstrated it in Libya.

It is time Obama is asked to show the leadership needed if we are to end the slaughter and stop the cross-border spread of violence that threatens the whole region. With his new mandate, he is the only international figure with enough clout to rally support for the robust measures that are needed.

The United Nations, of course, has the primary mandate: the preservation of international peace and security is the first obligation of the security council. The council must also meet the responsibility to protect civilians from mass atrocity, a responsibility assumed unanimously by member states in 2005 and exercised recently in Libya.

We understand Syria is a very different and a more complex challenge than Libya ever was, but that cannot be an excuse for inaction. There is scope for protection measures even if the security council remains paralyzed by the immoral Russian/Chinese veto. In such a case, the U.S. should lead by working with like-minded countries to do what is possible within the law. British Prime Minister David Cameron has already expressed an interest in partnering with Obama to make Syria a priority, and Canada should join them.

Such a partnership should work closely with regional neighbours, mainly Turkey, but also Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and ask that they contribute the necessary resources. It is past time for a major humanitarian effort through protected zones on the borders and in the refugee camps.

And yes, the security council should be asked anew to exercise its authority. Every diplomatic and political effort should be made to persuade Russia and China to withhold their vetoes. This would not be a call for storming the shores with the marines, or embarking on a bombing campaign. But certainly a "no-fly zone" should now be actively considered, along with other measures such as a reference to the International Criminal Court.

If the newly re-elected U.S president is ready to pursue a leadership role, it doesn't mean America must be front and centre in its actual implementation. As Libya proved, progress can be made through partnership, with many other governments actively contributing to the cause. But above all, addressing the security and humanitarian threats in Syria must be at the heart of any new American foreign policy agenda.

Canada can have an important role in this partnership. Stephen Harper has made recent and laudable efforts to influence Russia to step back from obstructing peace in Syria. But words need to be followed up by actions, and Canada's more active engagement can make a real difference to the shared cause.

The "Responsibility to Protect" doctrine was intended to move the international community beyond ad hoc interventions towards a more principled and predictable approach -- with the primary focus on the security of civilians. After success in Libya, Syria represents a step back to our old ways. It is time to refocus and re-energize international protection efforts under the aegis of the newly re-elected American president.

Lawyer Allan Rock and University of Winnipeg president Lloyd Axworthy are former Liberal cabinet ministers.

-- This article appeared first in the Huffington Post

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 17, 2012 A16

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