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 5 years, 3 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.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 3 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.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 3 months ago

It should be noted that whatever intervention that did come about, the conflict in Libya began as an internal struggle, much like Syria today. So if you're saying that intervention led to an expanded struggle with great loss of life, we now see that non-intervention leads to a protracted struggle with huge loss of life. It goes to highlight something I've said many times in this forum. There is no right or wrong thing to do. There are no clear paths that lead to known results. Our leaders muddle along, making decisions that seem best at the time, without any clarity at all as to what the outcome is going to be. Anyone who tells you they know the answer is either wrong or lying. At best, some may take a guess that might tun out to be correct in the long run. But it was only a guess when they made it.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 3 months ago

Damned if we do, damned if we don't (although it'll primarily be innocent Syrians bearing the brunt of that.)

jhawkinsf 5 years, 3 months ago

Correct. I don't know what will lead to an end of the conflict. Neither do you. Neither does Obama or the heads of any other state. No one does.

That said, that doesn't mean we should do nothing. I have no problem with the President gathering up all the experts in the Middle East, from the State Department to academia, and formulating what they consider to be the best course of action. But if it blows up in their face, if the action makes matters worse, I'm less inclined to affix blame, as your post seemed to suggest that the spreading of the Libyan conflict was the result of foreign intervention.

If you believe that intervention in Syria will lead to an expansion of that conflict throughout that region, as it did with Libya, then I can only surmise that you believe in a policy of non-intervention. I'm not disputing that as a perfectly reasonable alternative, given that there are so many unknowns with any decision and with no decision. I'm just not going to play the blame game should we decide something and it turns out badly.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 3 months ago

I wasn't expressing an opinion on the advisability of intervening in Libya. I was merely noting that it's a complicated world, and doing the supposed "right thing" doesn't always have the simple result of the good guys winning, and the bad guys losing.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 3 months ago

Correct again. So do we intervene in Syria, with unknown consequences or do we not intervene in Syria with the probability of significant civilian loss of life?

In the wake of the Salvatore Allende assassination, the U.S. made it against U.S. law for us to take out the leader of another government. It was a wise decision. But it constrains us when it comes to taking out some serious bad guys. Perhaps with the recognition of rebels as the legitimate rulers in Syria, this might open a window of opportunity for the U.S. to fly a drone over Assad's head and drop a bomb on it. Of course, my concern is that if the rebels win a decisive victory, there will be retribution on Alawite civilians who were not members of Assad's inner circle of criminals. Or it might lead to a power vacuum with several groups fighting a protracted war that might kill even more civilians. But you're right, it's complicated.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 3 months ago

One of the main problems in intervening in Syria is that it's essentially a proxy war between the despots of Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni monarchies in the region against Iran. And as the Greenwald article linked below covers fairly well, the support by Western governments of these despotic regimes indicates quite well how hollow the claim is that these governments have the slightest interest in democracy and human rights. Challenging these regimes would threaten their "national interests," which is really just code for the ability to extract their resources by the multinational corporations (under generous terms with the despots) who largely determine a large swath of foreign policies.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 3 months ago

Oh, come now, Bozo, you know it's even more complicated than that. There isn't a border that's been drawn in that region that wasn't drawn based on Western Powers. Of course, all that was done long before the U.S. became involved in the region. Despots were put into power by several countries as each tried to expand their power while simultaneously limiting the power of other countries they were competing with. Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia (pre-Soviet), all exerted influence on that region. Just as you apologize for Obama having inherited a mess, so too, did the U.S. when we became a super-power and again when we became the world's policeman. We never intended to fix all those problems because we didn't then know how to solve them. Perhaps you're correct when you suggest that our interests prevented us in seeking what must surely have been a long shot of a solution. But the mess? We inherited that.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 3 months ago

The US entered into the fray in the Middle East almost solely to enable the extraction of its resources on favorable terms to western oil companies, most of which have long since outgrown any sort of allegiance to anything but their bottom line. As far as the "mess" goes? We have most certainly been instrumental in not only creating it, but maintaining it, simply because that mess is seen as manageable, while the collapse of the despotic and tyrannical monarchies in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States is not.

And really, why to you need the silly straw man of labeling me as an apologist for Obama?

jhawkinsf 5 years, 3 months ago

You ignored my point totally. Most of this mess began in the 1800's and continued into the 1900's, when Western powers carved up the whole region and put into power their preferred monarch, leader, despot, whatever. But that had nothing to do with the U.S. or U.S. companies. If you'd care, we could go back further to the Crusades. Or even further. The point is, it wasn't us.

Interesting that you mention the tyrannical Saudi monarchy. Which would you rather have, that, or the conditions in Syria. Of course, the answer is neither, but that's not be an available option. As we both agreed, it's difficult to intervene knowing what the outcome will be. So if our choices are the current Saudi regime or intervene with the possibility that a Syria type situation might arise, then it seems wise to not intervene. No one is talking about "in a perfect world, this or that would happen". If we should have learned anything from our dealings in that region, "a perfect world" doesn't exist.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 2 months ago

One further point, Bozo, though it seems you've given up on this subject, but you might want to consider this anyway. You brought up the brutal Saudi regime. What do you think will replace it, should it fall? While I suspect many groups will be lining up to fight that battle, what with the oil riches to be had, the one group I think with the best chance of emerging victorious is the Wahhabi clerical leaders. As I look around, the closest movement I can think of to Wahhabism are the Taliban of Afghanistan. Both Wahhabism and the Taliban have close relations with al Qaeda. Is that really what you think is best for the people of Saudi Arabia? Because as you condemn support for the House of Saud, you put the people at risk when you call for it's ouster without knowing what will take it's place.

Abdu Omar 5 years, 3 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?

Ron Holzwarth 5 years, 3 months ago

I was quoting a man who claimed he was a Syrian. Of course, it's possible he was lying.

The real worry about our assisting the rebels too much, as I tried to make clear in my posting, is that it might provoke the Russians into a war with the USA. Don't forget, Assad is "their man".

And World War III is the last thing that we want to happen.

Ron Holzwarth 5 years, 2 months ago

Your comment "there is no reason for Assad not to step down and relieve his country of the suffering this war creates" reminds me of something that Winston Churchill wrote in his history of World War II. He talked about the Nuremberg Trials for the top Nazi war criminals, and how they were pretty much assured of the death penalty at their conclusion.

Winston Churchill made the observation that made for an unfortunate precedent, since other despots in similar situations are now likely to fight to the bitter end, no matter what the death toll is, in order to preserve their own doomed lives for as long as possible. He thought that life in prison in a guaranteed political asylum would be better, because a surrender, saving countless lives, would be likely to occur more quickly.

But that advice was never heeded, as any reader of modern history should be aware. So, conflicts such as the one in Syria tragically drag on far too long.

It was my opinion after reading Albert Speer's autobiography that during that life imprisonment, an autobiography (with a ghost writer in most cases, of course) should be required to be written, in order to spare the world tyrants such as that in the future. With the present situation, all of the memories of exactly how this all came to be are lost with the death of the tyrant. And, as a direct result, we are likely to be faced with the exact same situation in the future, since we never had a chance to learn from the past because the death penalty was carried out on someone who could have been the best teacher of all on the subject of how to avoid it.

But what is likely to happen is at the first possible opportunity, Assad is likely to be executed, and future historians will never have a chance to know exactly what is going through his mind right now.

As an aside, Albert Speer was by no means a top level Nazi, he was Hitler's architect. He did not know anything about Hitler's atrocities, or at least that's what he claimed, and after reading his autobiography, a perceptive reader will certainly realize what a treasure it is for the world - a first hand account of how normal Adolf Hitler seemed to be when you personally interacted with him.

Had Albert Speer received the death penalty, or not written his autobiography, we would have no way to know how normal a tyrant can seem to be - when he wants to. Although Hitler always did have a big ego.

So, Assad will not willing step down, you can pretty much count on that, because that will be the end of him. Apparently the only life he cares about is his own.

Ron Holzwarth 5 years, 2 months ago

Maybe that's why history repeats itself - we kill the very best teachers of all.

Ron Holzwarth 5 years, 2 months ago

Ron Holzwarth: "verifiable journalism on the topic is in rather short supply."

wounded_soldier: "They tell horrific stories of millions trapped,,, without,,, information."

You don't see a similarity there?

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 3 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


Ron Holzwarth 5 years, 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.


Ron Holzwarth 5 years, 2 months ago

Maybe I spoke too soon when I said "This is about the best thing that could happen," because the possibility exists that they will bring in the massive Russian Army and Air Force, crush the rebels, and then turn Syria into a Russian client state, in order to hang onto that port on the Mediterranean.

If that were to happen, no one would dare attack, because that would be a direct attack on Russia itself. And, Russia has a terrible track record of mistreating occupied countries, or countries that attack Mother Russia. Remember - Stalin murdered more people than Hitler ever did, by millions.

After occupying Syria, it would be child's play for Russia to bring in heavy weapons to eliminate the rebels. We need to all pray to our respective divinities that the Russians do the right thing, and simply leave quietly.

But, after listening to the former Prime Minister of Afghanistan's (until 1979) talk here at KU in the early 1980s about the Russian invasion, I got the impression that the leaders in the Kremlin have no morals at all. The attack began with a massive bombardment of Kabul, followed by a ground invasion.

But, hope springs eternal, and I'm sure the Russian population has no interest in a war.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.