There must be a better solution to Syria

Published 9:27 am Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Column: My Point of View, by Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

I was born during the Cambodian genocide, a nightmarish byproduct of the Cold War. In the early 1970s, American bombs had killed tens of thousands of Cambodians and had driven the survivors to support the Khmer Rouge against a hated dictator whom the U.S. propped up during the Vietnam War because he was anti-communist.

Our leaders didn’t invoke the “Pottery Barn rule” when the Khmer Rouge finally toppled the U.S.-backed government in Phnom Penh in 1975; Americans were exhausted from a decade filled with war and political upheaval, including high-profile assassinations.

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

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The rest of the world also looked away as this small corner of southeast Asia devolved into “the killing fields.” About one-quarter of Cambodia’s 8 million people died over the next four years.

When I was a senior in high school, “Schindler’s List” arrived in theaters, telling the true story of a Polish Christian who saved more than a thousand Polish Jews from the death camps during World War II. It’s one of the strongest cinematic statements ever made against genocide, and its unequivocal message is that we must intervene in such horrors.

A few months later, in April of 1994, Hutu extremists in Rwanda shot down their president’s plane over Kigali, and the pressure cooker of Hutu-Tutsi hostility exploded. From press accounts, it soon became clear that Hutus, armed mainly with machetes, were systematically hacking Tutsis to death.

How did the fresh lessons of “Schindler’s List” come to bear? For the most part, the world again looked on as an estimated 800,000 people were slaughtered in only three months. Perhaps a meaningful international response would have been too late anyway because the killings happened so quickly. There was reluctance to intervene at all, though, because it was “not in our national interests” and the people were clearly “other.” They had foreign-sounding names and the bodies piling up were dark-skinned. Maybe the scale of the violence was just too overwhelming.

The failure of other countries to intercede during the Rwandan genocide, despite the U.N.’s genocide convention, helped to precipitate a re-thinking of international response to future situations. In 2005, the U.N. adopted a new doctrine, known as R2P, establishing that states have a “responsibility to protect” their people from genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. If a state fails to fulfill this role, the international community has a duty to override a nation’s invocation of sovereignty and intervene using diplomatic, humanitarian and other means.

My daughter was born during the Syrian civil war that began in 2011. Obama is pushing for limited strikes against President Bashar Assad for recently attacking his own people with chemical weapons, violating the international norm against such use. The air strikes would likely have little impact on Assad, and the drawbacks could easily outweigh the benefits.

Assad crossed the tripwire for R2P long before he used sarin gas against Syrian civilians. The deaths from the latest gas attack, while horrific, represent less than 2 percent of the total dead in Syria’s civil war over the past two years.

The international community is obligated to respond more directly. It is past the point for preventive measures, and the U.N. is in a difficult position because Russia is blocking the U.N. Security Council from approving any military action against Syria, its ally. This is why Obama is trying to go around the U.N.

While it’s admirable that Obama is trying to act, military strikes should be a last resort. We should primarily be debating humanitarian aid and perhaps, like Sweden, offering permanent residency to Syrian refugees. Many Americans, though, want to just stand ringside or ignore the conflict altogether. We feel little connection to the suffering people are experiencing.

A certain mother of five who dabbles in politics and grabs attention with vitriolic sound bites recently stated that the U.S. should “let Allah sort it out” in predominantly Muslim Syria. This is an outstanding example of in-group/out-group phrasing. It’s a riff on the saying, “Kill them all and let God sort them out.” Allah is a reference to the Muslim word for God, and Muslims are a minority in the U.S. Thus, we easily think of the people fighting in Syria as “other,” and we can distance ourselves from the plight of people caught in the middle.

What if we said, “Let God sort out the mothers and children from the combatants”? It becomes more difficult to justify being bystanders in that framing.

Our humanitarian senses have developed further in the decades since Cambodia, and we must take action to protect children in this world from governments or enemies that kill them, on purpose or incidentally, simply for being born into the wrong group. We must put human interests above national interests, and we must do it as an international endeavor. It’s a shame that old Cold War rivalries are flaring up, but the stakes are too high to let that stop us.

To quote Mikhail Gorbechev, “There is an opportunity in this very severe situation to find a way out and to move towards a solution including an international conference on Syria, a solution that should certainly be found without circumventing the United Nations.”

All children deserve to be born into a world where they are safe, and it is incumbent upon us to create it.


Albert Lea resident Jennifer Vogt-Erickson is a member of the Freeborn County DFL Party. The “My Point of View” columns are written by members of the local political parties.