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By Michael Knigge

The head of the ill-fated UN peacekeeping force that couldn’t prevent the Rwandan genocide, Romeo Dallaire, tells DW why Syria’s crisis is reminiscent of events back then. He also explains what Germany has done right.

DW: Does the continuing carnage in Syria which has led to the exodus of millions of people and the international community’s reaction remind you of what happened in Rwanda 21 years ago?

Romeo Dallaire: What reminds me is not only the scale – I ended up with more than 4 million people, refugees and internally displaced persons in less than 100 days – but also in the incredible apathy we have had from the internationally community apart from pure survival and humanitarian efforts in the periphery. So it was like a repeat performance in a way.

What do you make of the fact that Bavaria’s capital Munich alone has taken in more Syrian refugees in one week than the United States and Canada have pledged to accept over the next few years?

There is a paranoia which we have seen governments successfully instill in our societies in regard to the Muslim community. And it is coming so much to the fore as in previous atrocities and movements of mass populations where it wasn’t the case of Muslims we have seen extraordinary efforts done by governments to ease the trauma and to assist these people. But because of the last years and what we seem to perceive as overriding security factors we have completely subjugated the human dimension to that even though the threat is to be proven within those refugees. I would not like to be an ISIS person caught up among Syrian refugees. I truly don’t think that would be a safe place to be.

What’s your reaction then to the stance of countries like Germany, Austria and Sweden, who are exceptions and have taken in large numbers of Syrian refugees?

I think they have done a much more realistic assessment of the situation. Of course one could argue that these are still drops in the bucket when you consider that we are talking about 12 million people. But it is absolutely incredible that only a few countries have recognized that the Syrian population is an educated middle-class population. These are assets to our nations. Yes, there is a transitional period, but that transition can be supported by governments and with community structures. But that is a temporary set of circumstances. These people can become effective members of our society. So I think they have got it right and we have got it dead wrong.

How many Syrian refugees should Canada and the US accept?

We have been bouncing around a lot of different numbers. My comment is I don’t know what the upper limit can be because we have not done a real assessment of what we can absorb and how much we really want to commit to this humanitarian crisis. We are talking about millions of people and a nation like ours of 35 million people with an incredible infrastructure and a desire for growth. So it is moot to put limits on these numbers. It is far more sensible to say ‘yes we want them to come in’, phase it in and then see when this thing ends. That makes more sense than to say 11,000 in four years and that’s it, even if the number of Syrians displaced keeps growing.

The current US Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Powers, long before she joined the Obama administration not only wrote the landmark book on the Rwanda genocide, but also the foreword to “Handshake with the Devil”, your own account of what happened there. Are you satisfied with her response to the Syrian crisis?

To be quite honest, I haven’t seen it. What has her response been? All I have seen is the American position that has come out of the White House and the internal strife that is going in the United States in regard to the whole election process. It’s as if they have cut themselves off from this problem. So I don’t know what her position is specifically .

Taking in refugees is one thing, but that does not solve the underlying Syrian conflict. What should be done to end the civil war in Syria?

We are four years too late to try to bring it under control as we could have as it started under the auspices of the responsibility to protect and the argument of the massive abuses of human rights by the Assad regime. We could have intervened then in a way of protecting the population which means very clearly that it is not just air power and no-fly zones, but it means boots on the ground by regional capabilities first and reinforcing them by training and equipping them and in extremis – if they want reinforcements under Chapter 8 – then we provide boots by training, logistics or even forward troops. That is what we could have done and it would have taken reasonable numbers, 10,000 to 20,000 troops to implement that.

Now four years later with these forces completely intertwined, with the scale of weaponry and the number of fighters amongst millions of refugees that are caught in the middle of this fire, we have a catastrophic breakdown of a region. So my position is that the region must come in to implement a process of assistance on the ground to stabilize Syria in a very progressive way. That does mean training up the regional powers, giving them capabilities and, if necessary, providing certain assets, including ultimately – if they want and support it – troops on the ground.

Romeo Dallaire, a Canadian lieutenant-general, was commander of the United Nations peacekeeping force for Rwanda (UNAMIR) between 1993 and 1994 where he witnessed the country descend into chaos and genocide, leading to the deaths of more than 800,000 Rwandans. He also served as a Canadian senator from 2004 to 2014 and is the founder of The Romeo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative.

The interview was conducted by Michael Knigge.