Now that Secretary of State John Kerry has succeeded, after considerable
personal effort, in securing Israeli-Palestinian agreement to resume bilateral
peace negotiations, the crisis in neighboring Syria urgently demands US
In between his meetings on the Israeli-Palestinian peace
process, Secretary Kerry visited the Za’atarai refugee camp in Jordan and got an
earful from the handful of Syrian refugees he met, who no doubt expressed the
frustrations of the 115,000 living in this desert setting.
When will the
US do more than offer verbal assurances of concern and take assertive action
against the Assad regime? The Syrian refugees living in the UN-managed Za’atari
camp face an uncertain future. Will they ever be able to return to their homes
in Syria? They represent only a portion of the Syrians who have fled across the
border to Jordan. More than 400,000 of them have registered with the UN, and
hundreds of thousands more have found refuge in Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and other
The pace of the exodus from Syria has increased rapidly this
year, reaching as high as 6,000 a day, according to Antonio Guterres, the UN
High Commissioner for Refugees. “We have not seen a refugee outflow escalate at
such a frightening rate since the Rwandan genocide almost 20 years ago,”
Guterres reported last week. Two-thirds of the nearly 1.8 million Syrian
refugees registered with the UN have fled since January, he added.
Syria another 4 million people have been internally displaced.
assist those inside Syria has been a primary concern of the Syrian Relief
Network, a coalition of Syrian non-governmental organizations, based both inside
and outside the country. The network has been advocating action by the
international community, not only to commit funds and supplies for food,
medicine and other humanitarian relief, but also to create and enforce the
mechanisms to assure delivery.
Radwan Ziadeh, a leading Syrian human
rights activist temporarily based in the US, argues passionately that protected
safe haven zones inside Syria are urgently needed to ensure that promised
humanitarian assistance reaches those internal refugees in dire need of
assistance. The Syrian Relief Network is making every effort to catalog the
locations and needs of internal refugees across Syria.
The idea of
establishing a safe haven inside Syria along the border with Turkey and making
possible delivery of humanitarian supplies across that border, was included in
UN Security Council resolutions vetoed by Russia and China earlier in the
conflict. Without such safe havens more Syrians will be fleeing to neighboring
countries, where at least they can find some shelter and assistance.
I spoke with Ziadeh last November, he had just returned from his first visit to
Syria since the Assad regime forced him into exile in 2007.
He was full
of optimism about the forces opposed to the Assad regime and talked about
returning one day to a liberated Syria.
But as Assad’s forces have
enjoyed unimpeded aid from Iran and Hezbollah, and used every military tool
available, including chemical weapons, the opposition has been losing territory
it previously held, and the Syrian death count is well over 100,000.
Nonetheless, Ziadeh remains optimistic that one day this regime will end – if
the US steps up and does its part.
Until now the US has not dealt with
the Syrian catastrophe as it should have, said Ziadeh. Besides creating
protected safe havens inside Syria, other essential actions would include a
no-fly zone to ground the Syrian air force and hamper supplies from Iran,
training and arming the Free Syrian Army to increase its capacity to win the
war, and supporting creation of a transitional government to prepare for the day
after Assad’s murderous reign ends.
“We know it is complicated but it is
getting more complicated when decisions are not made,” says Ziadeh, referring to
a perception of US hesitancy and indecision regarding Syria.
transitional government and pressing for concerted efforts to aid and protect
refugees will be among the issues on the agenda at the Syrian Relief Network’s
second conference next month. Setting up a transitional government composed of
Syrians in Syria is “a must,” Ziadeh stresses. “Otherwise, Syria will be a mess.
It will become like Somalia but in a more strategic region.”
of Syria’s disintegration and the destabilizing impact this would have on its
neighbors and the region as a whole should motivate the US to engage the crisis
more directly, together with likeminded western and Arab allies.
keep the secretary’s plane fully fueled.
The writer is the American
Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.