Syria: The Crime of Silence

BY MOHAMMED ALBARAK

An injured man is seen at a medical point in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta near Damascus in Syria. February 20, 2018. (Bassam Khabieh /Reuters)

Since 2011, the Syrian conflict has transformed through different stages of political stagnation and  violence. The peaceful protest of 2011, ignited by the Arab Spring revolutionary wave, demanded political and economic reform that initiated the current long-standing civil war

The conflict has attracted a long series of foreign interventions. Regional powers such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia became actively involved in arming and training some of the opposition’s forces and Turkey recently launched a military operations inside of Syria. On the other side, Iran and the Lebanon-based militia Hezbollah helped the Syrian regime’s military by providing financial support throughout the conflict. In 2015, Russia became another important player in the conflict through an airstrike campaign against the opposition forces in many parts of the country, including Aleppo and currently besieged Ghouta. Different political efforts have failed to bring an end to the conflict, which has resulted in  the loss of half million lives and the displacement of millions of people. The political path seems out of reach and use of force on the ground has become the ultimate show of power. All sides have committed varying degrees of violence, leaving the Syrian people to pay the cost.  

Unfortunately, news about Syria seems to only matter when the Syrian regime decides to use chemical weapons against its own people. It is understandable that the ongoing brutal conflict has become mundane, but death and destruction in Syria is happening regularly without the use of chemical weapons. On a daily basis, the regime of Bashar Al Assad indiscriminately bombards civilian-populated areas with all kind of weapons, most notably airstrikes and barrel bombs. The latest Ghouta chemical attack was not the first, nor will it be the last, in the series of atrocities committed by the Syrian regime. In 2013, Ghouta, a suburb of the capital Damascus, was the victim of a chemical attack that left hundreds of civilians dead and pushed thousands of families to flee. The thousands of lives that have been lost and the displaced millions are witnesses of the uselessness of the international community, represented by the United Nations. The latest wave of chemical attacks in Syria once again indicate that the regime of Bashar Al Assad serves as nothing but a terrorist force within Syria.

Ghouta is one of the few opposition strongholds, and it has been under siege for the past five years. The humanitarian situation has worsened over this period, culminating in the past week during the latest chemical attack. The attack resulted in at least 500 casualties and mass displacement. As a result of the continual bombing, food, medicine, and shelter are extremely scarce. Prior to the siege, Ghouta was a home to 800,000 people; however, at least half Ghouta’s population has fled in the past few years.  

The fall of Ghouta would represent a huge loss for the Syrian opposition. The escalation in Ghouta is also a reflection of the failed political process, a recurring theme throughout the conflict. Last month, the Sochi summit similarly reflected this failure, as Russia – the organizer of the summit – denied the Syrian opposition its basic demands resulting in the withdrawal of the opposition from the summit. The Russian government refused to allow the opposition even an opportunity to discuss a future of Syria without Assad. They also refused to display the opposition’s Syrian flag in the summit, a seemingly calculated political move.

This Ghouta offensive may result in a similar outcome to the Aleppo battle of July 2016. The regime of Assad has suffered great losses at the hands of the armed opposition, resulting in unprecedented atrocities being committed in Aleppo. Chemical weapons were used, and the Russian air force used disproportionate force in highly populated areas. The campaign in Aleppo ended with the surrender of the opposition, and Aleppo was left fully destroyed. Aleppo isn’t the only region that has witnessed the brutality of the Syrian Army; other regions including Hamas, and Dair Alzour, Daria have experienced it as well. The significance of the battle of Aleppo was that it shifted the momentum of the conflict to the regime’s advantage. The Russian support was a major element in shifting the tide of the conflict, especially regarding Russia’s commitment to Syrian intervention. Lack of precision when using bombs has also led to rising casualty numbers.

The international community has proven ineffective and uses double standards in dealing with Syrian conflict. Even though the Syrian conflict broke out at the same time as the conflict in Libya, NATO decided to intervene in Libya against Gen. Gaddafi. His defeat was celebrated as a triumph for freedom. On the other hand, Russian intervention is neither a triumph nor freedom nor is it for a good cause. This is not to diminish the negative role other foreign powers such as Iran, the Gulf countries, or even Turkey played in prolonging and complicating the conflict. The UN should recognize the Russian intervention in Syria for what it really is: state-sponsored terrorism. The Russian involvement in Syria was a turning point in the course of the conflict. It gave the regime the diplomatic and military support that it needed to continue their atrocities against the Syrian people. As Russia comes to play a bigger role in the region, the United States minimizes their role in the conflict – a foreign policy mistake they may soon regret. The political vacuum the U.S. will leave will result in a more repressive regime, one in which the Russians can continue to expand their influence in.

The U.S. Middle East policy is only concerned with ISIS and radical groups such as Jabhat Al Nosra or the scores of Al Qaeda agents in Syria. If half of that effort had been directed against the Syrian regime, maybe we would not see a massacre in Ghouta today. If the United States had seriously undertaken arming the moderate opposition and the Free Syrian Army, we would have not seen the radicalization that followed, which the Syrian regime has used to justify its crimes. U.S. actions have only contributed to this issue through President Trump’s recent airstrike on a Syrian airfield in response to a chemical attack that left 80 people dead. This inaction is not new; President Obama drew many ‘red lines’ for the Assad regime, only to have them crossed over and over again. The United States’ government has focused extensively on terrorism in the Middle East, and it is only fair that the crimes committed by the Syrian regime be dealt with in a manner similar to that of terrorism.

In March 2011, the Syrian people came to the streets in a peaceful and civil protest to demand basic human rights. It was one episode of a beautiful dream called the Arab Spring. The fact that the Syrian revolution has turned out to be this chaotic, brutal civil war does not, in any way, discredit the work of the brave protesters who peacefully challenged the  regime’s mass crackdown.  The international community let the Syrian people down every step of the way. History should never forget that the Syrian revolution started as a peaceful, civil, and just uprising that chanted for freedom and dignity, and one day Syrians will achieve their revolution’s goals. In the meantime, the regime of Bashar Al Assad will continue its massacres against its own people with no regard to basic human rights. What will it take for the international community to react?

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