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On my Mind: The Syrian morass

Security Council impotence has been the standard for the Syria crisis. Previous appeals from the UN’s own humanitarian agencies have been ignored.

April 29, 2013 20:38
4 minute read.
Syrian rebels take up positions during clashes with forces loyal to President Assad near Aleppo.

Syrian rebels 370. (photo credit: Abdalghne Karoof/Reuters)

Evacuation Day – Syria’s Independence Day – was subdued. No parades, no festivities to celebrate the day in 1946 when French forces departed, ending nearly three decades of foreign rule. Overshadowing the annual April event this year was the violent conflict that has exacted a high toll: more than 70,000 dead, millions of refugees, countless missing, and major cities in ruin.

The evacuees now are Syrians, fleeing the Bashar Assad regime’s unyielding brutality. More than 1.4 million are already living in refugee camps in neighboring countries. Another 4.25 million are displaced in Syria.

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“The situation in Syria is a humanitarian catastrophe with ordinary people paying the price for the failure to end the conflict,” Valerie Amos, the UN Under- Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, told the UN Security Council the day after Evacuation Day. UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres warned that about half of Syria’s population – 3.5 million external and 6.5 million internal refugees – will need humanitarian assistance by the end of 2013.

So overwhelming are the numbers it is tempting to ignore the situation, which is what much of the world is doing. Yet, dispatches from some courageous journalists have graphically conveyed the horrific depth and breadth of the human tragedy – the indiscriminate shelling and bombing, massacres and mass graves.

Under normal circumstances, children are symbols of hope for the future. But in Syria they became the first victims when security forces detained and tortured a group of youngsters in March 2011. That incident set off the popular uprising and Assad’s fierce, unforgivable crackdown. Today, Assad heads a severely fractured country that will be difficult to rebuild and sustain if and when the conflict ends. His downfall, despite American and European predictions, is hardly inevitable.

Compounding the tragedy is the continuing inability of world powers to recognize the long-term ramifications for Syria and the region, and to agree on how to bring an end to this nightmare.

Syria is not situated in an isolated part of the world. The conflict is already pressing across borders with Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and threatening Israel.

After hearing the urgent appeals of Amos, Guterres and other UN officials to aid Syria, the Security Council punted, issuing a non-binding “elements to the press” statement calling on both the Syrian government and the opposition to cooperate with UN agencies. The “elements to the press” message, the Associated Press noted, “ranks below even the usual unenforceable ‘press statements’ issued by the council, and is so low-level it is rarely resorted to.”

Security Council impotence has been the standard for the Syria crisis. Previous appeals from the UN’s own humanitarian agencies have been ignored, as China and Russia have blocked any meaningful action to protect Syrians and end the carnage.

Yet, the long-term ramifications of inaction are clear. As Assad’s forces continue to destroy their own country, the swelling ranks of refugees strain the resources of Lebanon and Jordan, the latter a key US ally that, over the years, has accommodated other Arab refugees, including Palestinians and Iraqis.

Israel, of course, is watching with justified concern what for nearly 40 years has been, despite the absence of a peace treaty, its quietest border. To preserve the status quo, the UN will need to renew, in June, its peacekeeping mission along the Israeli-Syrian border.

The US has long tiptoed around the Syria conflict. President Obama declared in August 2011 that Assad must go, but, with Iranian and Russian backing, he is still in power. Obama has declared that any use of chemical weapons would be “a game-changer.” But Assad has deployed sarin gas, begrudgingly confirmed by US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, without consequence.

Even humanitarian aid has been slow in coming. Though Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the US will soon deliver additional “non-lethal” assistance, food and medical supplies pledged in February have yet to arrive. And importantly, the US still refuses to ground Assad’s air force by imposing a no-fly zone, a move that would greatly assist Syrian civilians who are daily targeted by the regime as well as help those rebel groups that are aligned with US interests.

Until there is a coordinated international response, Syrians are left to the mercy of a regime that does not view its opponents as innocents. Both Assad and SANA, Syria’s state news agency, constantly refer to “terrorists,” a term bandied about freely to justify the refusal to end the brutality.

Assad, in his Evacuation Day interview on Syrian TV, charged Western countries with seeking his overthrow in order to reassert control over Syria. Does Assad, cloistered in Damascus, really believe that this war is retribution for events 67 years ago? Syria’s future remains a dangerously open-ended mystery.

The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.

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