On My Mind: Don’t forget Syria

“They turned away from defenseless men, women and children who died gasping for breath when Assad’s forces dropped their poisonous gas.”

March 27, 2017 22:40
4 minute read.
 A Syrian national flag flutters as the ruins of the historic city of Palmyra are seen in the backgr

A Syrian national flag flutters as the ruins of the historic city of Palmyra are seen in the background, in Homs Governorate, Syria April 1, 2016.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The sixth anniversary of the outbreak of Syria’s civil war passed this month as routinely as the previous five. The human toll has become mere statistics for a nation engulfed in ceaseless carnage with little hope for peace in sight. Many around the world simply avert their eyes from the images of what has become just one more insoluble conflict.

Voices of reason are rare, especially in international forums. Yet they are vital to keep the world’s focus on this man-made tragedy, to keep in mind the victims of this brutal conflict and who bears the blame, and to maintain at least the distant vision of a tranquil, normal Syria.

Though Syrian President Bashar Assad and his supporters project an alternative reality, his regime’s forces are largely responsible for the more than 500,000 dead and the 11 million refugees, half the country’s population.

One of those voices of reason is US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley. The former South Carolina governor turned member of President Donald Trump’s cabinet came to the US mission admitting she did not have the diplomatic experience of her predecessors.

But she was ready. Her transition has been seamless. She has not shied away at all in filling the role. With President Trump still sorting out his foreign policy priorities and approaches, Haley’s forthright posture is refreshing and reassuring.

At her first news conference as ambassador, outside the UN Security Council chamber, she spoke passionately in support of Israel and excoriated the UN for its long record of singling it out for mistreatment.

She vowed to end the pervasive institutional bias and followed up by joining in the call for removing a UN report on so-called Israeli apartheid. UN Secretary- General António Guterres agreed, ordered it removed, and the head of the UN agency that produced the screed resigned.

On Syria, Haley already has decried the UN’s handling of the crisis in the very chamber that is supposed to be devoted to resolving conflicts and advancing peace.

After Russia and China vetoed a Security Council resolution on February 28 calling for new UN sanctions on Syria, Haley strongly criticized the two permanent members of the Security Council that have been Assad’s steadfast allies. “They put their friends in the Assad regime ahead of our global security,” said Haley.

“They turned away from defenseless men, women and children who died gasping for breath when Assad’s forces dropped their poisonous gas.”

The Security Council vote was on a measure to hold Assad accountable for his regime’s most recent use of chemical weapons. While the US and Russia had arranged, with Assad’s consent, for the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons after an attack near Damascus in August 2013, the regime continued to use chlorine gas in its attacks on civilians.

“Russia just doesn’t want to criticize the Assad regime for using chemical weapons. That’s the truth,” said Haley. “It is a sad day for the Security Council when members start making excuses for other member states killing their own people.”

Ambassador Samantha Power, Haley’s immediate predecessor, was similarly passionate about Syria. “Aleppo will join the ranks of those events in world history that define modern evil,” Power told the Security Council after Russia and China vetoed a resolution in December condemning those responsible.

She named the Assad regime, Iran and Russia as the three UN member states behind the massacre in Aleppo. “It should shame you. Instead, by all appearances, it is emboldening you,” she said.

“Are you truly incapable of shame? Is there literally nothing that can shame you?” As the conflict entered its seventh year, the UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, announced that the next round of peace talks would take place before the end of the month. While the US has supported the UN-led efforts, Ambassador Haley said, “we do think there are people missing from the table.” Indeed, one key absent party is the United States.

The Obama administration shifted from adamantly demanding Assad’s resignation to quietly accepting the status quo. President Donald Trump has not yet formulated a Syria policy, and Haley did not respond to media questions on whether the US wants Assad to step down.

Other governments do have policies, though none that will bring peace. Iran and Russia, co-authors with Assad of the Syrian carnage, are paradoxically the key nations, together with Turkey, in leading negotiations to resolve the conflict. However, each is far more interested in exploiting the conflict to advance their respective national interests than in assuring the welfare and security of the Syrian people.

Finding the formula to resolve the Syria conflict, restore stability and rebuild the country so that it does not dissolve into chaos is an enormous challenge. Not doing everything possible would be the ultimate tragedy, with repercussions well beyond Syria’s borders.

The Trump administration should find a way, soon, to return to the table and take an active role in resolving the crisis. Meanwhile, voices of conscience and clarity, exemplified by Ambassador Haley, are essential.

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

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