Illustration by Bloomberg View
Illustration by Bloomberg View

The veto by Russia and China of a United Nations resolution urging a political transition in Syria and an end to the bloodshed there was, as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rightly put it, “a travesty.” The challenge now is to stop travesty from turning into tragedy.

President Barack Obama has seemingly ruled out “outside military intervention” for now. But given the Bashar al-Assad government’s murderous assaults, the outcome of Saturday’s UN vote has created a powerful temptation to arm Syria’s opposition, with the legitimate goal that its members should be able to defend themselves against a murderous regime.

After all, Qatar and other allies armed the Libyan opposition during its revolt last year, which was followed up with direct allied air support. And as Khalid Al Attiyah, Qatar’s minister of state for foreign affairs, so acidly put it, Russia and China have now given the Syrian regime “a license to kill.”

That temptation to arm the opposition, however, should be resisted. Syria is not Libya. High on the list of differences: the fault lines in Syrian society are sectarian. If the Arab League, the U.S. or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization were to arm the rebels, that could accelerate the downfall of Assad, but it would also ensure a much broader civil war. Syria’s Sunni majority might mark its victory by taking revenge on the minority Alawites and Christians who have largely stood with the regime. Those who armed them would bear some of the responsibility.

Moreover, although Syria doesn’t have a significant amount of oil, it is far more strategically important than Libya. Syria borders not just Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey -- countries that have important Sunni-Shiite, or Sunni-Alawite divides -- but also Israel and Jordan. It has close ties to Hezbollah and Iran, and hosts a Russian naval base at the Mediterranean port of Tartus.

In other words, unlike Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, Syria’s dictator has powerful allies. It’s why NATO and the U.S. have long ruled out direct Libya-style military intervention in Syria. It’s why Turkey has been reluctant, despite fervent prompting from the Syrian opposition, to create a buffer zone on its border with Syria. Opposition activists in Syria think Assad’s military would disintegrate as soon as deserters knew they had a safe place to go, but for the Turks that would mean either arming the Syrian opposition or sending the Turkish military to war to maintain the zone. There are also practical concerns: The Syrian rebels, unlike in Libya, are widely dispersed and don’t control a geographic area, meaning that Western air support would be of little efficacy.

Complexity is no excuse for inaction. And the failure of the Security Council resolution doesn’t absolve its members of their “responsibility to protect” -- the principle, gaining traction within the UN, that the international community must respond collectively when a state wages war on its own population.

Short of military intervention, there are many things that can be done to apply that emerging consensus to Syria. We support the creation of a contact group that would coordinate pressure on the Syrian regime, and think that, as part of that process, the U.S. should designate (as it did in Libya) a formal liaison with Syrian opposition groups. We urge the European Union’s Foreign Affairs Council to tighten sanctions on Syria at its meeting this month, and the U.S. Senate to speedily consider the Syria sanctions legislation now before it.

Lost in the defeat of the Security Council resolution was news of its support by South Africa and India, two countries known for their reluctance to back foreign interventions. Now China and Russia must be brought round to the right side of history; already, they have felt pushed by public opinion to defend their vetoes.

The attacks on civilians in Syria are barbaric. Yet as morally compelling as arming the Syrian opposition might seem, doing so at this stage would just be a prelude to a greater slaughter and transform an Arab Spring uprising into a divisive proxy war over geopolicy. Strengthening the coalition against Assad is the key to forcing his ouster without risking the mass killing of even more innocent people.

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