Opinion: World watches as Syrians suffer

January 21, 2013


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.

— Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.


Ron Holzwarth 1 year, 2 months ago

The latest: It looks like the Russians are giving up on Assad, they are beginning to evacuate their citizens. Without Russia's backing, the war should be over soon! This is about the best thing that could happen, since with Russia's backing, no one dared to give the rebels very much assistance.

They are evacuating more than 100 Russians as of today, but there are thousands of Russians in Syria. To be honest, I just can't imagine where they must be hiding.


just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 1 year, 2 months ago

Brookings' Bruce Riedel urges intensified US support for Saudi despots

by Glenn Greenwald

Every now and then, leading mavens of the Foreign Policy Community have an uncharacteristic outburst of candor


Abdu Omar 1 year, 2 months ago

"But, we're not really sure exactly how far out of control things have gotten within the country itself, since verifiable journalism on the topic is in rather short supply. Of course, it's very bad, but exactly what is going on? We don't really know for sure."

Ron, did you read the article or are you just commenting? YES, we are absolutely sure of what is going on in Syria, regardless of your spin. Assad is a war criminal and is killing civilians for being in areas that are held by the rebels. So, if you are neutral and living in a rebel held area, you are a rebel. It is that simple.

I have two aunts that live in Southern Syria and both have fled to Lebanon. They tell horrific stories of the millions trapped without food, clothing and shelter, medicine and information. Information is important to keep away from the onslaught of bombs and missles fired and yes, there are reports that Assad used poison gas in Homs and Aleppo.

This war must stop, there is no reason for Assad not to step down and relieve his country of the suffering this war creates. He is like his father who killed thousands in Western Syria for opposing him with poison gas and bombs. There is a reason that the US should send more aid, and the reason is simple: they need it! If a million more people live because we act, who cares what others think in the end?


just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 1 year, 2 months ago

The situation in Mali and the recent attacks on the refinery in Algeria are direct results of the intervention in Libya that took down Qaddafi. As horrific as the situation in Syria is, it'd be naive to think that increased intervention there wouldn't have similar repercussions throughout the region.


Ron Holzwarth 1 year, 2 months ago

As long as Assad refuses to step down, it appears that the situation in Syria is going to remain a warehouse fire burning out of control.

But, we're not really sure exactly how far out of control things have gotten within the country itself, since verifiable journalism on the topic is in rather short supply. Of course, it's very bad, but exactly what is going on? We don't really know for sure.

China, Iran, and Russia have allied themselves with Assad, and I did read that there is some support within Syria for him, but I find that very difficult to believe.

The big reason Russia has allied themselves with him, at least for the moment, is that Syria has a port into the Mediterranean. Russia considers that to be a very valuable asset for military purposes. It is possible that Russia might not have the use of the port in a post Assad era, and so it is in Russia's interest to maintain the status quo for as long as possible.

And Iran is allied with Assad because Syria is close to the Gaza Strip, where there's quite a weapons shipment enterprise going on. They're getting ready for a really big war with Israel.

I don't know why China is allied with Assad, maybe someone else can comment about that.

China, Iran, and Russia are all very powerful countries, and as long as Assad has their support, no one dares to directly intervene to change the situation. That would really set things off in a big way. That's why no armies are marching in.

Syria is only one part of the Middle East, and considering the surrounding situation, it certainly appears as though there will be a catastrophic war rivaling World War II within the next few years unless urgent diplomatic efforts to prevent it are successful.


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