In the world of international politics, Syria would rate as "a problem from hell."
The phrase is borrowed from Samantha Power, the new United States Ambassador to the United Nations. Ten years ago, at the tender age of 33, Power won the Pulitzer Prize for her outstanding book A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.
A Harvard professor specializing in human rights at the time, Power looked at the modern history of genocide (the word itself didn't exist until 1948) and how the United Nations and the United States did little or nothing to prevent Cambodia, Bosnia and Rwanda.
Whether it's an intervention to stop genocide or to prevent a government from killing its own citizens with chemical weapons, as in Iraq and now Syria, it's "a problem from hell" because of its complexity.
There is the moral imperative to stop deadly conflict, particularly when unarmed civilians are the majority of the victims. Sadly, that morality is worth little once the legal and political factors are accounted for. Put another way, if you hear gunshots and screaming from your neighbour's house, you should call the police. If you hear gunshots and screaming from a neighbouring country, however, you should mind your own business. That's the twisted world of international relations.
Syria is a sovereign nation with clearly-defined borders that must be respected under international law. The reason the United Nations doesn't have more clout and international law remains sketchy is because what happens within a country's borders is, in all but the most extreme situations, the exclusive dominion of the ruling power in that country.
Syria's civil war has been going on for 30 months and more than 100,000 people are dead as a result but the international community has not intervened directly to stop the fighting. The situation has been followed closely out of concern for what some international affairs experts call "regional contagion" - that the conflict would spread like a disease into neighbouring countries, specifically Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east and Lebanon to the west. Meanwhile, Israel lies to the southwest, content that Syrian President Bashar Assad is planning attacks on his fellow residents, rather than on Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, but also mindful of "regional contagion" in Palestine.
Avoiding a broader, regional conflict and further destabilization is one of the few issues the entire international community is in agreement on. Even if the United Nations could agree that immediate action was required to stop the fighting and killing in Syria, there would be a heated debate over what kind of action. Military invasion and overthrow of the Assad regime? UN peacekeepers? If so, from where and how many? Aerial bombing, missile and drone strikes? Trade embargo?
The major players on the international stage are divided, as usual. To offset the influence of the United States in the region, particularly through Israel, Russia has forged close ties with Syria in general and Assad in particular. They are not interested in flushing that relationship down the toilet and starting over.
Both Russia and China have blocked any effort by the UN Security Council to authorize military intervention in Syria. For those countries, it's about preventing further American influence on the region but it's also about principle. Both countries oppose international intervention into violent internal conflicts because they want to retain the right to do so in their own countries, without any lasting precedent set by the United Nations. If dissidents in Chechnya or Georgia require an iron-fisted reminder of who's boss, Moscow wants the right to apply that fist as hard as it feels is necessary. Same goes for China and its more racially and religiously diverse provinces on its western fringes.
Hell could be the outcome of a problem like Syria without careful action and response. Military action by the United States, France, Britain and other Western allies could lead Russia and/or China to take military steps to protect their Syrian ally.
Never mind, regional contagion. World wars have been started for less.
As an academic 10 years ago, Power recognized how these situations are "a problem from hell." Now she finds herself a key player in the middle of one.