Syria has become the world’s ugliest reality show. Anyone with access to YouTube can watch grisly videos of Syrian government aircraft deliberately bombing civilians — in breadlines, mosques, universities, apartment buildings, and outdoor markets.
No crime is too heinous for Bashar al-Assad’s campaign to terrorize rebellious Syrians into obeisance. U.N. reports say 60,000 have already perished. Foreign Policy cites a secret State Department cable that says Assad probably used poison gas against civilians in Homs last month.
The scale of Assad’s war crimes is reminiscent of those in Sarajevo, Kosovo, and Darfur. The extent of urban destruction resembles that in Haiti after the earthquake. So why has the world kept watching without doing more to help those desperately in need?
The scope of the disaster is outlined in a new report by the International Rescue Committee, a U.S. aid group active in the Mideast: 600,000 Syrians have fled to overburdened neighboring countries such as Lebanon and Jordan. They need international help to cope, especially given that the number could rise.
Meantime, two million civilians are displaced inside Syria, trying to survive with little food, medicine, or shelter during a frigid winter. Rapes of women and girls by armed men are common, and the government has systematically targeted hospitals and doctors.
Yet a U.N. appeal for $1.5 billion to aid uprooted Syrians has fallen far short.
One reason, of course, is the difficulty of delivering aid in wartime. A once-peaceful revolt against Assad descended into civil war after Syrian forces attacked nonviolent demonstrators. U.S. policy (which I question) still opposes any military aid to the rebels, who have battled Assad to a stalemate but can’t take Damascus. So the war continues, with noncombatants trapped in the middle.
Yet there are many ways to help civilians in Syria, even as the fighting drags on.
For months, global aid to Syria was largely channeled through international agencies that dealt only with sovereign governments. That meant they worked with Damascus or the Syrian Red Crescent, which wouldn’t deliver aid to areas freed from government control.
More recently, however, several international aid agencies, along with Syrian American volunteers, have found ways to transport tents, medical supplies, and other humanitarian goods across the border. USAID (the U.S. Agency for International Development), which has allotted $210 million in humanitarian aid to the Syrian crisis, is getting supplies into the country, too.
Getting relief supplies into Syria can be very risky. This week, one activist told me, Syrian refugees were cheered by wonderful, clear weather in the north of the country, but it also gave government jets an opportunity “to come and bomb.”
Still, courageous Syrian civilians are willing to risk all. But their success will depend heavily on whether the United States is willing to expand its role.
In November, U.S. officials helped organize a new Syrian Opposition Coalition, known as the SOC, with broader representation from inside Syria than previous such groups. President Obama recognized it as Syrians’ “legitimate representative.”
The immediate hope was that the SOC could serve as the focal point for coordinating aid to liberated areas of Syria and, with its contacts inside the country, identify needs. But to have credibility inside Syria, the SOC must be able to deliver benefits, which requires resources.
The Arab emirate of Qatar had promised to hand over hundreds of millions of dollars in Qatari banks from accounts belonging to Assad, opposition sources say. That hasn’t happened. Nor have the Saudis delivered on their pledges.
Meantime, private Gulf donors continue to channel funds to Islamist groups in Syria, who distribute charity to desperate civilians and become heroes.
Without resources, the SOC will quickly come to be dismissed as ineffective, like its predecessor, the Syrian National Council. It will not be able to establish itself in liberated areas of Syria or bolster nascent networks of civilian councils. A crucial chance to set up an effective channel to relieve Syrian suffering — and to facilitate a transitional government that might negotiate peace — will be lost.
That would be yet another tragedy heaped on Syrians already tormented by Assad’s war crimes — in full view of the world.