Syrian opponents of the Assad regime, hoping that a lifeline still might come
from the United States, got their final answer during the third and last
presidential debate. They are alone.
President Barack Obama and Gov.
Romney agreed on US policy towards Syria. They insisted that President Bashar
Assad must go. They agreed on finding ways to support certain opponents of the
regime, and provide humanitarian assistance. And they aligned on barring
American military intervention of any kind. In a politically deeply divided US,
there is bipartisan support for standing on the sidelines – and that message was
heard in Damascus.
Within hours after the Boca Raton debate, Syria’s air
force took to the skies again to resume bombing cities, and soldiers with tanks
and other weapons continued brutal assaults in towns and villages across the
country. Those Syrians able to flee their homes are daily joining up with the
400,000 refugees in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. In addition, the UN estimates
that some 2.5 million are internally displaced within Syria.
leadership is essential,” says Radwan Ziadeh, a Syrian human rights activist
temporarily based in Washington.
We spoke soon after his return from a
visit to Syria, his first since the Assad regime forced him into exile five
years ago. Ziadeh has been a persistent voice of reason and conscience, often
quoted in the media while keeping those who are interested and concerned abreast
of the regime’s continuing atrocities.
His own hometown was recently
subjected to a series of massacres that made it impossible for him to
Amid the chaos enveloping the country, Ziadeh told me there are
“islands” of territory liberated by rebel forces. In one such area in the north,
he found hopeful signs that gave him confidence that one day he would be able to
return to Daraya, his birthplace in southern Syria.
How to better
coordinate the disparate rebel groups holding such “islands,” was a goal of the
Doha gathering of Assad’s opponents – those who still are in Syria and others
who left the country – that ended in an agreement to form a new umbrella group.
It is the kind of unified opposition that the US, in particular, has been
seeking, although without any promises of what would follow from
But the rebels are still at the mercy of a brutal dictator
who is convinced that he is battling for Syria.
“We do not have a civil
war,” Assad said in a TV interview last Friday. “It is about terrorism and the
support coming from abroad to terrorists to destabilize Syria.”
count on Assad suddenly proposing to sit down with the leaders of the unified
“I felt he was in denial,” Kofi Annan, told The New York
Times after stepping down as the UN-Arab League envoy to resolve the Syria
“He felt like most of his problems were being caused by
outsiders; if outsiders were to leave Syria alone, they would resolve their
problems in no time.”
Assad is right about outsiders intervening, but
they are there to defend his regime.
They came from Iran, and from
Hezbollah. Russia has provided a ceaseless supply of arms, and together with
China, has prevented any meaningful UN Security Council action.
serious concerns about Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons. Here, Moscow has
concurred with the US and other Western powers, warning Assad against using
those weapons of mass destruction.
But US-Russia agreement on what to do
about Syria ends there.
What about the regime’s arsenals of conventional
weapons? The continuing resistance in the US to even a serious discussion about
imposing a no-fly zone is mind-boggling. Forcibly grounding the Syrian air force
– jet fighters and helicopters – would be a game changer. It could offer some
balance between Syrian government and opposition forces, lead to initiatives for
providing desperately needed humanitarian aid, and lessen tensions with
Lakhdar Brahimi, Annan’s successor as UN-Arab
League envoy and one of the few world leaders to meet with Assad in Damascus,
calls the current situation “a big catastrophe” and warns of “the danger of
Somalization,” in Syria.
“It will mean the fall of the state, [the] rise
of war lords and militias.”
Brahimi’s own efforts to negotiate a
cease-fire during Eid al-Fitr failed as miserably as Annan’s.
Assad, the situation in Syria is by far the most deadly crisis in the region
today. It risks further mayhem and needless suffering in Syria, as well as more
violent spillover into Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and now Israel.
threat to regional security requires White House decisions that can stem the
bloodshed that has left so far some 40,000 dead since the ferocious crackdown
began 20 months ago.The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s
director of media relations.