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.
At the moment, the nation Assad fears the most is neighboring Turkey. Turkey, a NATO member, has powerful military forces. It helped foster the creation of the Syrian National Council, the main rebel political opposition group. Turkey operates nine refugee camps along the Turkey-Syria border. Occasionally, Turkey has raised the rhetorical heat and discussed establishing a "buffer zone" inside Syria to protect Syrian refugees. Turkish officials, however, have been reluctant to go further.
Yet Turkey is now publicly discussing invoking two international agreements, both of which would legitimate armed intervention in Syria. One instrument is the 1998 Adana Agreement. The other is Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which covers mutual defense in the event of an attack. Article 5 says an armed attack against any single NATO members constitutes an attack on all NATO members.
Turkey and Syria signed the Adana Agreement after Turkey threatened to invade Syria because the Assad dictatorship was harboring the Kurdistan Workers Party's (PKK) senior commander. The treaty's language, however, is not limited to the PKK. It states that Syria "will not permit any activity that emanates from its territory aimed at jeopardizing the security and stability of Turkey." Turkey already harbors 25,000 to 30,000 Syrian refugees. Turkish aid groups expect that number to swell to 50,000. Does a refugee surge violate the treaty? It could, conceivably.
NATO Article 5 offers another legal avenue. On April 9, Syrian security forces fired across the Turkey-Syria border and wounded four people in a refugee camp in Turkey's Kilis province. That constituted an armed violation of Turkey's border. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan noted, with cool anger, that "NATO has responsibilities to do with Turkey's borders, according to Article 5."
Bluster or potent signal? Erdogan is leaving his legal options open.