Something needs to be done about the dying children in Syria - opinion

How the West can correct its mistakes and save Syrians drowning in a riptide of internal conflict, starvation and sanctions.

 IRAN’S PRESIDENT Ebrahim Raisi meets with Syria’s Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad in Tehran in December. (photo credit: WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY/REUTERS)
IRAN’S PRESIDENT Ebrahim Raisi meets with Syria’s Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad in Tehran in December.

At least three Syrian children are dead this month from inadequate protection against the snowstorms and subzero temperatures that have made 2022 the coldest winter in 40 years in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey. Their mothers are among Syria’s 6.8 million internally displaced persons. One is in intensive care after her tent collapsed from the weight of snow in Qastal Miqdad; the other is in a hospital in Aleppo with serious burns when a heater set fire to her tent. By winter’s end, hundreds more Syrians, young and old, will likely die.

Mothers and their children are dying throughout Syria. Not only in settlement camps but also in cities that lack electricity, fuel and food. Not only in Syria but in Iraq, Lebanon and throughout the Fertile Crescent. If a Syrian family flees their home due to deprivation and starvation from international sanctions, they will not be able to escape this year’s deadly winter. And if they survive the winter, chances are they will not survive the year. Without help, these mothers and their children are doomed.

“Hope is dying,” Cardinal Mario Zenari, the Apostolic Nuncio to Syria for the past 16 years, warned the Vatican in November. “Up until two years ago,” he told the Vatican News, “I was receiving interview requests from across the globe. Now, no one asks questions about Syria. They tell me that news about Syria is no longer interesting journalistically.” As it relates to the plight of the Syrian people, the accuracy of Joseph Stalin’s observation that “a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic” was proven in 2015.

Two months after Alan Kurdi’s family celebrated his second birthday in 2015, a photograph of the Syrian toddler on a beach wearing a bright red T-shirt, blue shorts and sandals became international news and, for a few months at least, changed the world for the better. Alan was not playing in the sand. He was lying on it facedown where the soft waves of the Mediterranean Sea met the Turkish shoreline – and he was dead. Also found dead on the beach that September day in 2015 were his 5-year-old brother, Ghalib, their mother and other refugees who were aboard an inflatable rubber raft overloaded with 14 people when it collapsed five minutes into its journey from Bodrum, Turkey, to the Greek island of Kos.

THE IMAGE of the toddler’s corpse became an instant global icon of the refugee crisis. As the son of immigrants who ensured I was born in the safety of what is now known as “the Golden Era of Kuwait,” I wept tears of gratitude. As the father of four, I wept tears of horror.

A migrant woman from Syria checks her mobile device as she eats with her daughter at a recetion centre after their arrival at the main railway station in Dortmund, Germany, September 13, 2015. (credit: REUTERS/INA FASSBENDER)A migrant woman from Syria checks her mobile device as she eats with her daughter at a recetion centre after their arrival at the main railway station in Dortmund, Germany, September 13, 2015. (credit: REUTERS/INA FASSBENDER)

The next day, September 3, French President François Hollande held a joint press conference with Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny to call for a fair and humane policy on immigration, suggesting that a French-German initiative could help solve the crisis by creating a “long-term and mandatory mechanism” to divide refugees among the 28 European Union countries. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s controversial open-border policy towards refugees, announced two days prior to Alan’s death, was suddenly embraced nationwide as morally and politically valid. (Less than three months earlier, in June, Berlin and Paris had rejected a European Union Commission proposal for mandatory refugee quotas.) On September 22, the European Union approved a controversial plan to distribute 120,000 asylum seekers among its member states.

Yet less than a year later, most EU members began shutting their borders. I found it particularly ironic that Alan’s drowning became the justification for an agreement between the European Union and Turkey in March 2016 that effectively closed the migration route from Turkey to the Greek islands.

Today, the coronavirus crisis has put additional locks on entry doors already shut to refugees, which has accelerated the dangerous use of small boats for migrant crossings in the central Mediterranean. The UN’s International Organization for Migration warns that “invisible shipwrecks are occurring far from the view of the international community.”

Meanwhile, with close to 500,000 Syrians already killed in the civil war, half the population has been forced from their homes, with 6.8 million now refugees in other countries and 6.7 million internally displaced and dependent on international aid. Eight out of 10 Syrians live below the poverty line. A record 12.4 million people – 60% of Syria’s population – are food insecure, according to the United Nation’s World Food Program, which predicts that 3.1 million more will be unable to eat without international assistance “unless urgent action is taken.”

To rebuild its ruined infrastructure, Syria, now suspended in a state of “no war, no peace,” needs $400 billion, according to external estimates. Yet even if the peace required to begin reconstruction were close at hand, EU and US sanctions applicable worldwide against Syria would make full restoration impossible.

The build-up of US sanctions since 1979 have been relentless, ineffectual and inhumane. The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019, more punitive and wide-ranging than all previous sanctions, ran “roughshod over human rights, including the Syrian people’s rights to housing, health and an adequate standard of living and development,” according to UN human rights expert Alena Douhan, by targeting any foreigner helping in the reconstruction, including humanitarian workers. Shockingly, it took almost a year before the US amended the act to allow nongovernmental organizations to provide humanitarian aid.

THE CONCLUSION is inescapable: decades of international sanctions and isolation have only hurt the Syrian people. Fuel is needed for tanks, but it is also needed for homes, hospitals, schools, bakeries and for the Syrian people to commute and deliver goods. Instead of achieving its political goals, the sanctions have pressured President Bashar Assad to strengthen the regime’s ties with Iran.

In addition to sanctions, previous US administrations have made several other mistakes that have allowed the proliferation of terrorist organizations as well as the intervention of Iranian-backed militias. Within a month of America’s 2019 announcement of withdrawal from northeast Syria, Turkey began its occupation of large territories there, funding and training militia groups in the northern Idlib province to achieve strategic depth for its plan of hegemony over the entire eastern Mediterranean.

The Biden administration should adopt a more flexible approach to Damascus. First, a cohesive joint diplomacy between Russia and the US regarding Syria will help reduce much of Iran’s dangerous and destabilizing influence, and therefore should be a priority. Russia will be willing to compromise since it has not been able to achieve any political breakthrough in five years of direct military intervention. It is in Russia’s best interests to help restore peace and get Syria back on its feet so it can start pulling out its troops.

A gradual softening of sanctions against Syria should involve a step-for-step diplomatic disarmament that acts as a framework for normalizing the Assad regime. I believe that if the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, then the West’s approach to resolving the Syrian crisis is insane. Not one of the more than a dozen sanctions has served its purpose – to defeat the Assad regime or, at the very least, normalize its behavior. Instead of sanctions that outlaw the normalization of relations between Syria and its neighbors in the region, the US and the European Union, should encourage it.

First, Syria’s civil war has ceased to rage, and Assad is still the president. Second, suspending Syria from the Arab League in 2011 and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in 2012 neutralized the moderate regional voices that could have helped mediate an end to the civil war that still divides the country. Third, kicking Syria out of the League and the OIC increased its need for non-Arab Iran, Russia and Turkey, who have backed Assad.

Now the top Middle East official on Biden’s National Security Council, Brett McGurk, accurately predicted in 2019 that “Arab states will now reengage with Damascus. Resistance to this trend from Washington will only frustrate the Arab states and encourage them to conduct their diplomacy behind Washington’s back. A better approach would be for the US to work with its Arab partners to craft a realistic agenda for dealing with Damascus.” Describing Syria as “the land of bad options,” McGurk called for “targeted sanctions to pursue more limited goals” as well as trilateral diplomacy between Israel, Russia and the United States that could begin to drive a wedge between Russia and Iran over Syria.

A REGIONAL alliance is also needed to help pivot Assad away from Tehran with the promise of normalized trade relations and reconstruction funding. It would also alleviate the disruption the crisis has had on its neighbors’ economies due to Syria’s central geographical location. The United Arab Emirates (December 2018), Bahrain (December 2018) and Jordan (January 2019) wisely reopened their embassies in Damascus. Oman, which never closed its embassy, reinstated its ambassador in October 2020. As McGurk predicted, the wall between Syria and its neighbors began to really tumble down in 2021.

Saudi Arabia sent intelligence officials to meet with their Syrian counterparts last May. Jordan then reopened its border for trade with Syria in September. Less than a month later, Jordanian King Abdullah II’s widely publicized phone call with Assad inspired other regional leaders to begin restoring relations.

In October, the UAE economy minister met with his Syrian counterpart and agreed to enhance trade and economic cooperation between their nations. On November 9, the Emirate’s foreign minister visited Damascus to meet with Assad. The next day, Algeria, which is hosting the Arab League summit in March, announced its support for Syria’s readmittance.

Among other League nations supporting Syria’s return are the UAE, Iraq, Lebanon, Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt, which called for Syria’s readmittance in 2017. And Russia’s special envoy to Syria has predicted further easing of sanctions in 2022.

It is notable that US President Joe Biden is not discouraging the thaw. Although his administration officially insists that no allied countries contribute to Syria’s reconstruction, it is not pressuring Arab League members to reject Syria at its March meeting. This is because Washington understands that everyone – except Iran – stands to lose if the sanctions are allowed to continue.

The Syria-Iran alliance is shaky, a marriage of convenience between fundamentally different countries. Iran and Syria should not be treated as if they were similar: one country has expansionist ambitions, the other does not. The Syrian elite, which is divided on Iran, are unhappy about statements from Tehran that cast Syria as a satellite state. They worry that Iran is trying to establish its own state within Syria, as it did in Lebanon. And they dislike paying the heavy price required by Iran in return for its much-needed credit lines.

Since most of the Middle East region’s burning issues are intertwined with Syria, normalizing relations will help solve the refugee problem, allow reconstruction to begin, decrease Iran’s influence, limit Turkey’s expansionism and encourage the resumption of talks between Syria and Israeli that were going on behind the scenes in May 2008 before Tehran caught wind of them and issued veiled threats to Damascus. Syria’s recovery, however, is impossible under the current sanctions.

NOW IS the time to increase diplomatic relations with Damascus. As a lead-up to the Arab League summit in March, the UAE can play an important role. Abu Dhabi has earned the trust and respect of all the key players – Syria, America, Russia, Great Britain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan – with its wise policies and effective leadership both regionally and internationally. Throughout the Syrian conflict, Abu Dhabi’s focus, first and foremost, has been the interests of the beleaguered Syrian people. Its active diplomacy, effective courage and proven ability to achieve some breakthroughs in the Syrian issue make the UAE the perfect candidate to host a meeting attended by Syria and all the foreign ministers in the region to set the parameters of a solution that guarantees the unity and safety of Syrian territory, the exit of all foreign forces and the safe and dignified return of its refugees.

Such a meeting offers an entry ramp as well as a roadmap for a peaceful, Syrian-led democratic transition that already exists: Security Council Resolution 2254, which the United Nations unanimously adopted in December 2015. The only plan for resolving the Syria conflict that has won international backing, the resolution calls for a nationwide cease-fire and a process through which Syrians can establish “inclusive and nonsectarian governance,” draft a new constitution and prepare for “free and fair elections” under UN supervision.

On Christmas Day 2015, Channel 4, a British public-service television network, presented an alternative to Queen Elizabeth’s annual holiday message. It was delivered by Alan and Ghalib’s father, Abdullah Kurdi, who pleaded, “At this time of year, I would like to ask you all to think about the pain of fathers, mothers and children who are seeking peace and security. We ask just for a little bit of sympathy from you.”

Today, seven years later, I find the need to echo that father’s plea. As a Muslim who believes in and vigorously defends the values of the West, I’m left defenseless against arguments that the US and EU sanctions have contributed to an increase in human suffering, hunger and poverty without motivating meaningful political reforms on the part of the regime. To fulfill the still unanswered prayer of Alan’s father, the West must ease its sanctions and help loosen Syria’s ties with Iran by encouraging Arab nations to take the lead in bringing Damascus back into the fold of brotherhood and constructive leadership in the region.

The writer is a Jordanian entrepreneur with weekly columns in the Arabic press.