Syria continues to descend deeper and deeper into perdition, surpassing even Dante’s legendary nine circles of hell.
When President Bashar Assad initiated the conflict over three years ago, he promised that others would pay heavily – and they have. Assad’s inferno has reached far beyond Syria’s borders.
A French Muslim who did a one-year stint with ISIS in Syria is in custody for murdering four people at the Brussels Jewish Museum on May 24. This was an ominous act of terrorism that confirmed European and US concerns about the whereabouts of the estimated hundreds, if not thousands, of jihadist adherents who made the trek to Syria to join up with ISIS and similar groups. While not allies of Assad and his Iranian benefactors, ISIS continues to thrive in Syria amid the chaos his regime has generated and fostered, and now has violently expanded its capture of territory in Iraq.
It all began in March 2011 with the arrest and torture of Syrian schoolchildren, an outrage that sparked an outcry from their parents and led to mass, peaceful protests in major Syrian cities. But Assad could not bear any public criticism, let alone suggestions for reform. His regime responded with an ongoing mix of brutal repression aimed at instilling fear among Syrians, and the exertion of maximum damage on them and their country.
The UN stopped trying to keep count of the dead last January. The official death toll of 160,000 is already out of date and continues to rise. Syria has been designated the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
Over 9 million people – about 40 percent of the population – are displaced, one-third of them living as refugees in neighboring Jordan, Lebanon and other countries.
Over 50 percent of the refugees are under age 18, constituting a lost generation deprived of education, proper healthcare and other humanitarian assistance. The future for Syria’s youngsters, as well as for their families, is uncertain.
If one day they could return home, what would they find? Assad’s regime has systematically destroyed buildings, even whole neighborhoods, in cities and towns across the country. Neither has Syria’s heritage been spared. The leveling of the 400-year-old Eliyahu Hanabi Synagogue in the Damascus suburb of Jobar, with the attendant loss of generations of Syrian Jewish artifacts, was just the latest destructive assault on religious and cultural sites.
Cloistered in Damascus, insulated from much of the destruction his loyalists have produced, Assad has outlived persistent forecasts of his demise. Unlike other leaders in a region felled by the Arab Spring uprisings in countries still seeking some modicum of political stability, Assad has survived, albeit with extraordinary costs to this own country, ignoring demands for his departure and refusing even to negotiate with opponents. Two peace conferences in Geneva failed, and two UN/Arab League envoys, Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, resigned in frustration.
Assad’s reelection as president, cynically held in the midst of civil war and with the result never in doubt, gave him a public endorsement to carry on his reign of terror for at least another seven years. Never mind that the alleged high turnout took into account only those who could find places to vote inside war-torn Syria, or lined up at some embassies in other countries.
Among the first to congratulate Assad upon his victory was the head of the Iranian election monitors’ team which, along with representatives of Venezuela and other self-styled bastions of democracy, gave full approval to the voting process and the results. Iran has been an Assad ally like no other, sending regular shipments of arms, often through Iraqi airspace, and also supplying the Lebanon-based Hezbollah, another foreign force that entered the Syria war to help Assad.
Iran’s role in the Syria conflict, however, has been mostly disregarded in the P5+1 talks regarding its nuclear program. “No deal is better than a bad deal” is the current mantra, but will “no deal” actually prevent Teheran from achieving the capacity to build a nuclear weapon? Finding a way to extend the talks beyond the July 20 deadline is vital.
And, if all the parties agree, adding the Syria file to the agenda will also be critical.
That will give the five UN Security Council members – Britain, China, France, Russia and the US – and Germany another chance to devise a common approach on the Syria crisis, however difficult Russia in particular, largely supported by China, has proved to be in forging a consensus on Syria.
Saving Syria and preventing its war from further inflaming the region, and beyond, should be an urgent international priority.
The US can exert leadership, but without cooperation from others, there will be no way out of the intricate maze of hell Assad has fashioned.
Kenneth Bandler is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.