Resolution 2254: Speaking Out or Doing?

With the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, adorned with expressions of Western regret and dismay over mass slaughter in Syria, the Obama administration continues to limp toward the January 2017 finish line hoping for the best. As Secretary of State John Kerry's fingers remain super-glued to the lapels of his Russian counterpart's well-tailored suit, that which passes for strategy is the sincere wish that Russia and Iran will abandon their interests and persuade their client (Bashar al-Assad) to step aside for the sake of a united Syrian front against an enemy whose survival in Syria Moscow and Tehran find useful: the Islamic State (ISIL, ISIS, Daesh). Hope is neither a plan nor a strategy. Indeed, if Russia and Iran decline to stop the mass murder right now, hope without action becomes an accessory.

The calm self-assuredness of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is hardly an act. Indeed, were it not for John Kerry's dogged insistence on a diplomatic process that has thus far produced random, plucked-from-the-sky target dates for negotiations, ceasefires, agreements, constitutions, and elections, Moscow would not likely be paying any attention at all to Washington on Syria. Why, after all, would it go out of its way to spend time with a player of so little consequence?

Russia's President, Vladimir Putin, is bloody minded. Yet he is neither deaf nor blind. He hears Washington's soulful words about the inadmissibility of his client's barrel bombs, starvation sieges, mass incarceration, and the like. He sees an administration that has not lifted a finger to protect one single Syrian inside Syria. He hears his American counterpart call on Bashar al-Assad to step aside. He sees a policy suggesting it was a mere advisory opinion. He hears the American president proclaim a chemical warfare redline. Some fourteen violations later, he sees a climb-down arrived at in private without consulting national security officials and without a word of warning to allies.

Russia is now inside Syria, militarily protecting a client whose collective punishment strategy has made more than half of the country safe for ISIL while creating, in the other half, the humanitarian abomination of the 21st century. Russia deepens the human misery and terror with bombing runs of its own that block desperately needed humanitarian aid as winter descends on an already prostrate population. Chided by John Kerry about bombing everyone but ISIL, Lavrov replies disdainfully that it is Washington's fault because the administration has declined to coordinate militarily with Moscow. So: the fact that Russia seemingly cannot distinguish between a Turkmen village in northwestern Syria and ISIL formations far to the east is apparently Washington's responsibility. Russia's cold contempt for the administration and its sense of supreme impunity in Syria are clear to all but those who close their eyes.

As it stands, Resolution 2254 - a cut-and-paste version of statements emanating from the Vienna meetings of October 30 and November 14 - is as devoid of meaning as everything else the Security Council has passed with respect to Syria. Twenty-one times, since early 2014, the Secretary-General has reported the refusal of the so-called Syrian government to permit the unimpeded provision of humanitarian assistance to starving and diseased Syrians. Will 2254 unblock this obstruction? Will it stop barrel bombs and other forms of ordnance that rain down on residential areas without even a pretext of discrete military targeting? Will it free a single political prisoner among the tens of thousands being tortured, starved, and sexually abused? If what passes for the "international community" has done nothing about these abusive, ISIL-enabling, refugee-producing practices until now, what is it about another piece of paper that will make a difference?

John Kerry suggests that a ceasefire possibly coming about early in the New Year would put an end to civilian mass murder. And yet a ceasefire is an arrangement between combatants. Leave aside for a moment the devilish complexities of multiple ceasefires across a complex Syrian security landscape. Since when have women and children - and unarmed men for that matter - been considered combatants? What terms will we expect them to consider and accept so they can remain unmolested as they line up at a bakery, study at a school, pray in a mosque, or heal in a makeshift hospital? What is it in international law that permits the mass murder of civilians while ceasefire arrangements are called for by diplomats or mulled over by armed parties?

Mr. Kerry and some other foreign ministers - surely not Mr. Lavrov - spoke eloquently in the wake of Resolution 2254's passage about Syria's humanitarian catastrophe. Yet Syria drowns in a sea of lifeless, action-free verbiage. In his December 18, 2015 press conference President Obama observed that, "And as far as Syria goes, I think it is entirely right and proper for the United States of America to speak out on behalf of its values." Contrast this with Voltaire: "Every man is guilty of the good he did not do." The good he did not do: not the good he failed to talk about. Speaking out, getting on the right side of history, reducing everything to idle wordplay in the name of strategic communication: none of it has protected a single Syrian from a homicidal government. The failure of the West to protect Syrians inside Syria from Assad and his enablers is morally shameful and politically disastrous.

Walking away from a diplomatic endeavor blessed by the Security Council surely is not a near-term option. Still, there is no escape from two salient facts:

First, there will be no diplomatic progress toward a Syrian political consensus and a united front against ISIL as long as Syrian civilians are on the bullseye. Who can negotiate in good faith, demonstrating flexibility and willingness to entertain compromise, while his or her constituents are being vaporized or sent fleeing for their lives? How can an anti-ISIL united front be formed while one side employs tactics that boost ISIL recruitment at the expense of civilians? If anyone wants this diplomatic process to succeed, stop the slaughter of civilians immediately. He who wants it to fail will permit the murder and mayhem to continue.

Second, Russia and Iran can, if they wish, stop the preponderance of the slaughter right now. According to the documentation of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, of an estimated 190,000 Syrian civilians killed since March 2011, roughly 180,000 are the responsibility of a regime that depends entirely on Moscow and Tehran to keep it alive. If Iran and Russia move right now to muzzle their client they will prove to one and all that the Vienna process and the Security Council resolution endorsing it are more than paper and ink. But if they permit their client to continue with business as usual - indeed, if they continue to supplement the war crime spree with their own input - they will confirm the futility of the current exercise. Allowing a reasonable time for arm-twisting, they could end the bombing, lift the sieges, and begin the prisoner releases within 72 hours. Is anyone even asking them to do it?

When John Kerry's 2013 headlong pursuit of Russia finally succeeded in catching the prey, his reward was a diplomatic fiasco in Geneva. Anyone who cares about Syria prays for something different this time. Yet one need not wait for the New Year to discern the truth. If the barrel bombs and other instruments of mass terror continue to fall on Syrian civilians, and if the sieges and prison torture continue, it will be because Moscow and Tehran want it and permit it while a hollowed-out West wrings its hands and mumbles pieties. If this proves to be the case, Resolution 2254 will be but another entry in an encyclopedic compendium of the good we spoke about, but did not do.

Frederic C. Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, served as a special adviser for transition in Syria at the State Department in 2012.