On My Mind: Syrian mess

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.

July 22, 2013 21:06
3 minute read.
Syria's President Bashar Assad

assad making a small sign 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)

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 attention.

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 countries.

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.

Inside Syria another 4 million people have been internally displaced.

How to 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.

When 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.

Forming a 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.”

The prospect 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.

Better keep the secretary’s plane fully fueled.

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

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