Supporters of Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah carry flags and pictures of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad during a rally marking al-Quds Day, (Jerusalem Day) in Maroun Al-Ras village, near the border with Israel, southern Lebanon.
(photo credit: AZIZ TAHER/REUTERS)
It was callously ironic that Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir met in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Al-Bashir, after all, is a wanted man. The International Criminal Court has issued two arrest warrants for him, in 2009 and 2010, for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide. Russia, which provided the transportation for Al-Bashir, and Syria, which warmly greeted him, should have arrested and delivered him to the Hague, where the ICC has been waiting to put him on trial.
Instead, on December 16, Al-Bashir became the first Arab head of state to break the Arab League mandate to ostracize Assad. The Sudanese and Syrian tyrants share some similarities in the brutal mistreatment of their own citizens. Al-Bashir’s record is longer. He has ruled Sudan since 1989 and is responsible for the murder of at least 300,000 in Darfur.
When the Arab League voted in November 2011 to suspend Syria’s membership, the death toll was 3,500. The 18 Arab countries that supported the action were trying to press Assad to stop the brutal crackdown he had initiated eight months earlier. Only Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen demurred. Exactly how many Syrians have died since March 2011 is uncertain. The UN stopped counting at 100,000 in January 2014, but the records kept by human rights organizations inside Syria have set it at well over half a million.
The chance of Assad being held accountable is very slim. Russia has been his chief defender and protector at the UN Security Council, blocking, from the beginning of the conflict, nearly all crucial resolutions, as well as recommendations that those responsible be taken to the ICC.
Currently, most Syrians live as refugees, most of them in their own country but away from their homes.
“No nation in recent decades has had such a large percentage of its population displaced,” the Pew Research Center noted. The nearly 13 million Syrians displaced after seven years of conflict “amounts to about 60% of Syria’s pre-conflict population.”
The destruction from within of a sovereign nation is reflected in the status of its children. More than 51% of Syrians are under the age of 24, more than 31% under 14. One-third of the schools are not usable, with many destroyed or damaged and others sheltering displaced families. Housing, hospitals and transportation are also in ruins across the country, especially in the areas where Assad’s forces used all kinds of weaponry to pummel Syrians.
The conditions of Syrians who fled to neighboring countries is not much better. In Jordan, for example, according to UNICEF, more than half of the 660,000 Syrian refugees are under age 17. They face – as do Syrian children inside Syria and at refugee camps in other countries – lack of access to schools, health services and food.
More than 20,000 children have been killed in the conflict. In complete disregard of the millions of displaced and the 5.6 million refugees in other countries, Assad and his Iranian and Russian allies continue to prosecute the war, though each does not necessarily have the same interests or goals in mind as the others.
They are celebrating, prematurely, the defeat of ISIS, and have gained US President Donald Trump’s concurrence. He announced the withdrawal of the 2,000 American troops stationed in northeast Syria, originally sent to battle ISIS and not the Assad regime. Both Turkey and Iraq are poised to enter Syria once the Americans are gone. Peace in Syria is not at hand.
The battle for Syria’s soul continues as it has since that fateful day in March 2011, when Assad’s forces opened fire on schoolchildren who had scrawled graffiti against the regime. The very future of Syria as a functioning, independent country is gravely in doubt.
Still, the Al-Bashir visit could be a first step toward ending the Arab League boycott of Assad. The UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus last week, and a Bahrain government announcement indicated that it may be the next Arab country to forgive and forget. In 2019, the Arab League might even vote to welcome Syria back as a full member, The Guardian reported.
If so, that would be a painfully forceful regional “we don’t care” message to the Syrian people. Efforts to legitimize Assad and dismiss his transgressions show a shameful disregard for the Syrian people.
If this conflict ever ends, will they be able to know normalcy again? Will the foreign forces that have entered and settled in at the behest of Assad, their leader and tormenter, ever leave? What kind of a country will Syria be? And, significantly, what will the long-term repercussions be for neighboring countries, for the region?
For most Syrians, the die has already been cast. Being ignored is a most painful tragedy.The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.
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