International community must defy Syrian regime amid human catastrophe

The world should have acted in 2010 when President Bashar al-Assad's troops first used live fire on tens of thousands of nonviolent protestors. Six years later, the Assad regime is being compared to Cambodia's barbaric Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s. Assad has remained defiantly indifferent to the suffering of the Syrian people.

As Russia has come to the Syrian regime's aid, room for other outside intervention in the crisis has dwindled even further. Peace talks in Geneva suspended last Thursday shortly after they had opened, in large part because, buoyed by Russian airpower, the Assad regime has been unwilling to allow humanitarian relief to reach besieged populations in conjunction with the talks as required by U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254, the very resolution that authorized the talks.

Assad's callousness to suffering is hard to fathom. Time and again the international community has lost the opportunity to address the enormous burden of human suffering the war has wrought. His military has repeatedly dropped indiscriminate barrel bombs on civilian populations and destroyed neighborhood after neighborhood to deny insurgents any safe harbor among the civilian population.

Government forces have directly attacked schools, mosques and marketplaces. Physicians for Human Rights reports that through October 2015, 697 medical personnel have been killed, along with 329 attacks on medical facilities. Even children have been imprisoned and tortured by security forces.

Today 800,000 people are estimated to be living under siege in Syria. According to Siege Watch, some 600,000 are besieged by the Assad government, 200,000 by the Islamic State Group (ISIS). They are denied safe drinking water, food, fuel and health care.

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All in all, according to Mercy Corps, there are more than 6.5 million displaced people within Syria, and about 12 million people are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. Annie Sparrow writing in Foreign Affairs reports that last year OCHA, the U.N. agency charged with humanitarian relief, has reached only 4 percent of the Syria's besieged population.

In its most recent advance north of Aleppo, the regime with the help of Russian airpower has closed off the most important humanitarian corridor into the city. As a result, 15,000 new refugees are reported to have advanced on the Turkish border to escape attack and find the means to support themselves.

The regime's re-conquest of Aleppo demonstrates how Russian involvement has greatly complicated not only the peace process but also the prospects for humanitarian relief. The nest of interconnected problems in the Syrian mega-crisis -- civil war, refugee flow, humanitarian emergencies, lost development -- is getting harder and harder to address.

How will the 10 billion dollars committed at last week's donor conference be distributed? The wisdom is that it should be focused on neighboring states: Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.

In press interviews prior to the conference, Jordan's King Abdullah revealed that the kingdom is already spending 25 percent of its annual budget on refugee relief. Prime Minister Tammam Salam of Lebanon said he would ask for $12 billion over the next five years to support the Syrian refugees in Lebanon, who number at least 1.1 million.

Professors Alexander Betts and Paul Collier have proposed the creation of special economic zones in Jordan where Syrian refugees might become self-supporting and integrated into wider regional economies. Linking the zonal development to the labor market in host countries will help. But fragile countries like Jordan and Lebanon will need direct investment to strengthen their strained economies and preserve their weakened political systems.

None of this aid to refugees and their hosts, however, addresses the problems of the displaced and besieged populations in Syria itself. The great powers have to move beyond their preoccupation with defeating ISIS, which, in the case of Russia, had only provided cover for attacking moderate rebels with legitimate grievances against the Assad regime as well as innocent civilian populations. It is time to also address the humanitarian crimes Assad is committing.

Rather than coddle the regime, U.N. humanitarian agencies with the backing of the international community must break the siege of the Syrian people, defying the regime to supply a succession of aid convoys, establish humanitarian corridors, and institute and defend safe zones for the victims of war, in a mass demonstration of nonviolent force.

The U.S. too has a critical role to play, one that has been largely reactive. This is not to suggest American ground troops or Sen. Ted Cruz's "saturation bombing" of cities, but rather a re-shifting of gears from reactive to firm and decisive. As put by career diplomats Nicholas Burns and Jeffrey James in The Washington Post on Feb. 5, "diplomacy is most often effective when it is backed by clarity of purpose and military strength."

In today's "humanitarian business" pools of drivers, medical personal and aid administrators will be available to volunteer. Governments have only to provide the transport and the material aid. And, of course, there is this: They must be willing to stand up to Syrian and Russian bullies to give their assent to convoys of peace to move on under the U.N. flag.

[Drew Christiansen, S.J., is Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Global Development at Georgetown University; Ra'fat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American businessman and political commentator.]​" pools of drivers, medical personal and aid administrators will be available to volunteer. Governments have only to provide the transport and the material aid. And, of course, there is this: They must be willing to stand up to Syrian and Russian bullies to give their assent to convoys of peace to move on under the U.N. flag.


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