By Aijaz Zaka Syed
May 15, 2015
The Syrian conflict entered its fifth year this March, a fact barely registered around the world. Syria may not have entirely disappeared from the radars of the world community and world powers but the focus and direction of their engagement has certainly shifted.
The international focus is no longer on the unprecedented humanitarian crisis that the Syrian people have been battling or the continuing, appalling atrocities and crimes of the Baathist regime in Damascus.
Nearly 300,000 Syrians have lost their lives and almost half of the country’s desperate population has fled to take refuge in neighbouring countries like Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. Many more are risking their lives to reach more distant and attractive options in the west.
According to the United Nations, Syrians currently constitute the largest refugee and internally displaced population in the world, perhaps only next to the Palestinians. UN agencies have been struggling for desperately needed relief and are constantly revising their aid appeal upwards. But international aid has lately been reduced to a trickle.
A recent statement issued jointly by several UN agencies implored the world community to do more to end the suffering in Syria: “We ask ‘what does it take’ to end this crisis? The future of a generation is at stake. The credibility of the international community is at stake.”
A 21-organisation report released on the anniversary of the crisis in March provides a searing evaluation of the UN Security Council’s pathetic response to Syria.
The report points to the repeated failure by conflict parties, the international community and members of the Security Council to protect innocent citizens, provide humanitarian access, fulfil aid commitments, create and implement political solutions to the crisis, and hold parties accountable for crimes committed against civilians.
Rights and aid groups paint a very grim picture of Syria. With the international attention shifting from Syria, the Syrian regime has become even more brazen in its attacks and collective punishment of its own people.
Earlier this month, Amnesty International talked of “sheer terror and unbearable suffering” as a result of the Syrian Army’s deadly use of ‘barrel bombs’ – a crude and lethal mix of metal pieces and explosives – against the civilian population in Aleppo and other cities.
The report paints a particularly distressing picture of the devastation and bloodshed caused by barrel bombs dropped on schools, hospitals, mosques and crowded markets. Thousands, most of them civilians and women and children, have died since January this year alone in what Amnesty calls ‘Syria’s circle of hell’.
“These reprehensible and continual strikes on residential areas point to a policy of deliberately and systematically targeting civilians in attacks that constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity,” says the watchdog.
Taking a leaf from the Israelis next door, the Syrian regime has also liberally been using banned chemicals such as chlorine gas in this endless, brutal war on a helpless, besieged people.
So why has the world abandoned Syria and failed its people? The meteoric rise of the menace called Isis (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) or IS out of the Mesopotamian mess, created by you know who, may be one explanation.
The shock- and-awe of IS shenanigans have ostensibly forced the US-led coalition, including its Arab and Muslim members, to rejig their strategy, focusing all their attention on dealing with the clear and more pressing danger posed by the IS. The stunning turn of events in Yemen have taken the attention further away from the murderous rule of Bashar al-Assad.
Amidst this chaos come the glad tidings that Washington is planning to train a few ‘good Syrian rebels’ in Jordan. And no, they are not being armed and trained to take on Assad but to tackle the IS challenge.
Indeed, the Obama administration appears to have quietly concluded that given the threat posed by the IS and the fine mess Washington has already made of its interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, it is perhaps best to leave Assad alone.
The newfound bonhomie and convergence of interests between Washington and Tehran – which has been the biggest and most decisive supporter of the Syrian regime, providing it with critical military, economic and logistical support – also seems to dictate this new approach.
But where does that leave the people of Syria? Left to its own devices, do you think the Syrian regime would go back to its old, peaceful ways and spare the people who dared to confront it in the wake of the Arab Spring revolutions?
Allowing the status quo to continue in Syria is no solution. It will only embolden and give the regime free rein to go after its detractors and dissidents, which includes nearly the entire nation. To understand what lies ahead for Syria, look to its past. And it is not very reassuring.
The Baathists across the Arab world boast a ruthless history. And the Syrian regime has turned out to be the most oppressive and brutal of them all, perhaps with the exception of the one led by Saddam Hussain.
Hafez al-Assad, the late illustrious father of the tyrant, killed thousands in one single crackdown in what has come to be known as the Hama massacre of 1982. Thirty years on, in 2012, his son repeated and revisited the horror on the city, killing its citizens in their thousands all over again. Their crime? Defying the rulers in Damascus and demanding back their dignity and rights.
But if standing up for one’s dignity and choosing one’s destiny is a crime, all of Syria is guilty of the crime. This is a right that is recognised by the UN Charter and the faith. Which makes you wonder how Iran’s Ayatollahs can bring themselves to back and sustain the rule of the Baathists in Damascus knowing full well the nature and extent of their crimes against humanity?
How can the world community, including the Arab and Muslim nations, stand and stare and do nothing to stop the continuing carnage and bloodletting in Syria?
At the 2005 UN World Summit, more than 150 world leaders solemnly proclaimed and declared ‘Never Again’. Acting on the principle of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), these heads of state committed themselves to never again stand by while atrocities – such as those committed during the Holocaust and in Rwanda, the Balkans and Cambodia – are perpetrated against innocent civilians.
Indeed, the Responsibility to Protect principle commits the international community “to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council” to intervene on behalf of civilians when national governments fail to protect them from “genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.”
In Syria there has been no “timely and decisive” response, neither to protect civilians from “genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity” nor to provide them with relief.
If the Obama administration is guilty of criminal dithering and missing many opportunities of resolving the conflict, countries like Russia, China and Iran have helped perpetuate it and may have, directly and indirectly, helped the regime in its crimes against its people.
Indeed, each one of us with our silence, indifference and inaction may be complicit in the killings and humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Syria. We have all failed Syria. For, as Edmund Burke warned, all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.
Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Middle East based columnist.