Opinion: Send in the Planes

Photo Courtesy of U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. John E. Lasky

The current situation in Syria is becoming more and more desperate. The Bashar al-Assad regime’s brutal crackdown on the opposition has escalated in recent months and the death toll is rising dramatically. To make matters worse, a siege on the Syrian city of Homs is reaching a critical point as international efforts to send in aid have yet to bear fruit.

United States Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, in comments released by her office on Wednesday, said, “Rather than meeting the needs of its people, the barbaric Syrian government is preparing its final assault on the city of Homs. Meanwhile, food shortages are reported to be so severe that people, especially children, will soon start dying of hunger.”

Such a desperate situation clearly calls for desperate measures—and there are some that don’t involve weapons.

During the Cold War between the West and Soviet Russia, the Communists besieged West Berlin, which was allied with the US and Western Europe. The plot created a serious dilemma for the Western powers. Breaking the siege could launch World War III, but just watching could lead to their allied half of the German capital submitting to the Soviets.

In response, the US, the UK and others launched a daring airlift campaign that sent in tons of supplies, even chocolate, and saved West Berlin. The Russians couldn’t dare shoot down the planes for fear of sparking a war they didn’t want either, and the siege eventually ended.

A similar response is called for now. The world has tried to pressure Assad into letting in aid to his starving people.

US Ambassador to the UN Rice made her comments following the attempt by a high-ranking UN official, Under-Secretary-General Valerie Amos, to negotiate safe “humanitarian access for relief organizations” in Syria, as Rice phrased it. The Syrian regime refused Amos entrance.

As a result, the world has been effectively pinned down by Syria and its allies Russia and China. Syria won’t allow enough basic aid to its own people, and Russia and China are preventing serious UN sanctions and condemnation from hitting Assad in response. Western and Arab sanctions can intensify, but will that be enough in time to prevent an even greater massacre?

Assad’s plan appears to be winning a brutal war of attrition over the opposition. His regime has more food, more medicine, more guns—and therefore more time. If he can’t murder all his opponents without creating more problems for himself, he can starve them into the ground—symbolically if not literally.

So the West, and the US in particular, has reached the time for action. And the best approach is another airlift. Without a proper airport, supply drops and cargo helicopters will likely be the only options. And that probably won’t be enough.

Still, if Assad’s time is running down, then what the Syrian people most need is more time of their own. Even less than enough food and medicine would stave off mass starvation and might buy the world enough time for sanctions to break Assad’s grip on the country.

At the very least, it would send a dramatic and powerfully symbolic image that the world is with the Syrian people and that they are willing to take risks to defy Assad.

And such an airlift would indeed be risky. Helicopters have to land and supply drops would likely require placing cargo planes in harm’s way. If Assad’s forces were to hit a US plane or a European helicopter even by accident, much less intentionally, war could be launched.

But that risk is precisely why such a move would wreak havoc for Assad’s forces as well. Shelling would likely have to stop or at least aim in a different direction when Western supply aircraft were in the area, thereby buying more time for the opposition to rescue the wounded and recover from the assault.

Further, Syria would have obvious cause for complaint about the violation of its sovereignty, but where could it turn? The UN is mostly opposed to Assad’s brutality. Russia and China would voice their dismay, but who would dare act against the sending in of food, water and medicine to starving women and children?

Recently Russia has sent in arms to Syria, proving it’s a friend in need—even if the motive was strictly economic. The dying Syrian civilians have friends too. It’s time for them to act like it.

(By Joshua Spurlock, www.themideastupdate.com, February 29, 2012)