Bashir al-Assad's Syrian dictatorship is fighting a "creeping war of repression" hideously similar to the "creeping war of aggression" Slobodan Milosevic's Serbian dictatorship pursued, first in Croatia and then Bosnia, precisely two decades ago. Milosevic's forces would attack, seize a niche of Croatia or Bosnia, then halt and wait. Milosevic would assure the U.N. and Western Europe that he would revive negotiations and seek a durable ceasefire. As diplomatic criticism subsided, Milosevic's forces would renew their assaults. The international community's response? Another cycle of complaints and threats of economic sanctions.
In 2012, Assad assures the European Union, NATO and the Arab League that he wants a "national dialogue" with Syrian rebels. He promises his thugs will comply with a ceasefire agreement -- soon, very soon. Then his artillery shells another neighborhood, machine guns rake another street, and the killing continues, niche by niche.
Milosevic ultimately fell from power, but only after some 100,000 people (the exact figure is debated) were slain in Yugoslavia's various wars of fragmentation. He died in The Hague in 2006, facing trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
To date, the death toll in Assad's creeping war stands between 10,000 and 11,000.
Assad bets he'll beat a war crimes rap by retaining power in Syria. He has the support of Iran, Russia and China. Russia and China provide the diplomatic muscle to deflect demands by Syrian activists and human rights groups that European Union, NATO and various Arab allied forces exercise the "responsibility to protect" (R2P) innocent civilians and militarily intervene to stop the carnage.
R2P is a controversial concept. R2P advocates argue that the international community has the right to intervene to stop mass atrocity crimes (e.g. genocide, or ethnic cleansing, to use a phrase from Milosevic's era). Advocates contend a state is obligated to protect its people from mass atrocities. If it fails to do so, it abrogates its sovereignty. R2P conflicts with absolute notions of a nation-state's territorial sovereignty. Russia and China stepped aside for NATO intervention (under U.N. auspices) in Libya, but for many reasons they have so far decided to back Assad.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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