William Harris is a professor and the head of the department of politics at the University of Otago in New Zealand.
Article 7 of the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) defines "crimes against humanity" as "murder" and other "inhumane acts" committed "as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population." It would be hard to find a clearer case of such offenses than the Syrian regime's systematic repression of peaceful demonstrations through the past six weeks, with indiscriminate use of live ammunition against its own people on a countrywide scale. The massacre of at least 120 defenseless civilians across Syria this past weekend brought the death toll since protests began in mid-March 2011 to nearly 400, according to conservative estimates.
Apart from the warfare in Libya, the casualties in Syria are the highest among the Arab uprisings against autocratic regimes that began in Tunisia in December 2010. It is also plain that murder in Syria is probably on the verge of further escalation, as President Bashar Assad and his lieutenants survey world reaction and see nothing of note. The international community that brandished international justice at Moammar Gadhafi for crimes comparable to those being committed in Syria is virtually mute before Assad. Western media will not show images like that of the 12-year-old child whose head was half shot away in a massacre of 14 civilians in the southern Syrian town of Izra'a. If they did, President Obama might feel pressed to do just a little beyond issuing expressions of outrage.
It is impressive that Syria's uprising has so far remained peaceful and non-sectarian in the face of the most violent provocations of a dictatorship that, more than any other autocracy in the Arab world, represents a throwback to European fascism of the 1930s. In response to the regime's attempts to paint the opposition as fanatical Islamists, one rallying call on the streets of the coastal town of Baniyas has been: "No Muslim Brotherhood and no Salafis — We are students of freedom." Protesters are gathering in mosques because there is nowhere else to gather.
The main impetus toward Islamic extremism and sectarianism in today's Syria comes from the regime itself. Assad has cultivated Sunni fundamentalists for use in Lebanon and Iraq even as he also arms Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the regime has sought in the last few weeks to provoke Sunnis against Alawites in the Mediterranean coastal region, to discredit the opposition. It is shameful that the Obama Administration clings to pathetic scare stories that Syria will become either an Islamist emirate or a sectarian maelstrom to justify its toleration of the hell without end of the present gangster state.
It is difficult to think of anything more obstinately counter-intuitive than Barack Obama's reluctance to give up on the Syrian dictatorship and the bankrupt policy of "engagement." Morality, strategic interest, and simple good sense together demand an end to the nonsense about reforming what cannot be reformed; if it survives, the dictatorship will be so blood-soaked that no decent person could "engage" its leadership. On the other hand, a new Syria will mean a new Middle East, with the Iranian theocracy's capability in the Levant dealt a stunning reverse and new prospects for a real Arab-Israeli peace process.
Specifically, what to do? The Syrian people have no desire for any direct external intervention. They do however need some sign of vigorous solidarity from the international community in the face of regime barbarity. The U.S., which has reservations about the ICC and is not a signatory to the Rome statute, has no moral option but to endorse publicly and immediately both regime change in Syria and the just demands of the Syrian protestors for democracy. Britain and France, as signatories of the Rome statute, have a moral duty to sponsor a U.N. Security Council resolution on the model of resolution 1593 of 2005, which referred the Darfur situation to the ICC prosecutor. Such a resolution would invoke Chapter VII of the U.N. charter to back investigation of Bashar Assad and his associates for prospective indictment under international law for crimes against humanity.