Damaged buildings in Al-Zabadani, Syria (file).
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Syrian President Bashar Assad, the only Arab leader to have weathered the Arab Spring popular uprisings and so far still not dislodged by civil war, is a survivor.
With brute force and vital assistance from Iran and Russia, Assad has managed to avoid the fates of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Yemen’s Al Abdullah Saleh, and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. July 17 marked the fifteenth anniversary of the day he assumed the presidency, succeeding his late father. Holding on to power at all costs, especially now, is the key to Assad’s endurance.
The Syrian people are paying the ultimate price. Their suffering, largely at the hands of the Assad regime, is so horrific it is hard for people around the world to watch and comprehend. More than 220,000 have been killed in the past four years. Four million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries – nearly half of them to Turkey – and the exodus is likely to continue.
Another nearly eight million Syrians are refugees within their own country, having abandoned or been forced to leave their homes to seek food and medicine, both in short supply, and, most importantly, to find safety. In sum, more than 50 percent of Syria’s population of 21 million are in dire need of humanitarian aid. Syrian cries for a meaningful international response have been largely ignored.
Why can’t the unity of will that brought together the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, the P5+1, to negotiate and conclude an agreement with Iran on its nuclear program, be mobilized to help the Syrian people? The world should be ashamed that “Syria is on the brink of falling apart,” as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon declared at the end of June, as the P5+1 were huddled with Iran in Vienna. The Syrian situation, he noted, is “putting at even further risk what is already the most unstable region in the world.”
The Iran nuclear deal is portrayed by the US as a first step toward a new chapter in Iran’s relations with the international community. Surely, Syria should be an early test of Iranian intentions. Iran’s direct involvement in Syria, its financial and military support for the Assad regime – with Iranian forces on the ground – was left off the agenda of the nuclear negotiations, as were all the other provocative interventions carried out by Iran and its proxies, such as Hezbollah in Syria, around the world.
Indeed, a major concern raised by the lifting of sanctions is that Tehran will have more funds to continue its support of terrorism and interference in other countries.
Even before the agreement that will lift sanctions was finalized, Iran offered another $1 billion credit line to Syria. No surprise, then, that Assad was among the very first to congratulate Iran on the deal it negotiated with Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the US.
During the more than four years of civil war, Assad has made no move to compromise with his opponents, many of whom have long desired a peaceful solution that would preserve and strengthen their country. The consistently fierce and bloodthirsty response from Assad’s forces – from shooting at bread lines to dropping barrel bombs filled with chlorine – and Assad’s cavalier dismissal of peacemaking efforts by UN and Arab League envoys have contributed to the chaotic conditions that allowed Islamic State to emerge, grow and thrive in Syria and Iraq, threaten other nations in the region, and aid jihadist terrorism in Europe and the US.
“Syria is one of the world’s most chaotic and lethal battlefields. With hundreds of armed militias, there are now wars within wars,” Paulo Pinheiro, chairman of the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry for Syria, wrote in The Guardian.
“The absence of decisive action by the community of states, as a whole, has nourished a now deeply entrenched culture of impunity.”
The Syria conflict is a clear danger to regional and world security. A coordinated, dedicated, international strategy is urgently needed to end the conflict and rebuild the country with a new leadership. For Syrians, for Syria’s neighbors, for the United States and other world powers, the challenge is enormously complicated. But the situation in Syria can no longer be ignored.The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.