The United States Must Act on Syria
At the end of August, in my hometown of Daraya, regime forces perpetrated the worst massacre of Syria’s 18-month conflict. Shell-shocked residents have discovered hundreds dead — a result of a concerted effort by the Assad regime to target and intimidate civilians with airpower, artillery, and house-to-house raids. Local activists reported finding 156 bodies in the Abu Suleiman Darani Mosque, one of the oldest and most famous mosques in Daraya. Hundreds more bodies were discovered strewn in back alleys and in the basements of houses — nearly all seemingly executed. Among the dead was my cousin Mohamad Moustafa Al-Abaar. On August 24, he was briefly detained by security forces but then hours later disappeared. Two days later, his body was found along with seven others in the basement of an abandoned building.
Since the massacre in Daraya and the continued violence, 27,000 Syrians have died in the conflict, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Tens of thousands more have been arbitrarily imprisoned and tortured, and hundreds of thousands have fled to neighboring countries since the conflict began. An additional 2.5 million Syrians, unable or unwilling to leave the country, are internally displaced and left to their own devices to find shelter and means of survival. The mass exodus of Syrian civilians to Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan has, unsurprisingly, already caused violence to spread across borders. The region now faces its worst refugee crisis since the Iraqi exodus. An estimated 100,000 Syrian refugees have fled their country in the last month alone. In the absence of international humanitarian agencies and proper monitoring amidst protracted violence, the situation in Syria is growing to serious crisis proportions.
As the United States claims a leading diplomatic role for itself in the region, it cannot afford to stand by while its regional allies are destabilized and unspeakable crimes like the Daraya massacre continue to be perpetrated. Inaction on the part of the U.S. government, which to date has demonstrated only a rhetorical commitment to the defense of the universal human rights of the Syrian people, risks regional conflagration, prolonged civil war, and in turn the likelihood of a violence-prone, failed state. The United States must take definitive steps now to bring this conflict to an end.
Today we face the same options that were presented and asked for early in the conflict. While domestic restraints on U.S. intervention seem to preclude full-scale involvement, the United States should now provide robust diplomatic support for action to protect civilians, such as the establishment of no-fly zones. The Assad regime has proven time and again that it is entirely willing to indiscriminately bombard its own population centers with artillery and airstrikes. If the United States is unable or unwilling to put its own planes to use protecting innocents, the least it could do is provide diplomatic support to those who are. Regional allies have expressed a willingness to provide air cover for refugee camps situated near international borders — there is no reason for the United States not to support these efforts.
Additionally, the United States should, in concert with regional partners, work to increase the supply of defensive weapons to the armed opposition. The Free Syrian Army (FSA), which controls large portions of the country, desperately needs anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons. Anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons will give the FSA the ability to match the power of the regime’s military hardware and, most crucially, protect civilian populations from the retaliatory death throes of the Assad regime. These defensive arms must be provided, along with intelligence, training, and strategic support, to carefully vetted elements of the FSA. By strengthening well-chosen actors in the Syrian opposition, the United States will not only be hastening the conflict’s end, but also directly investing in a stable post-Assad Syria, a Syria much more likely to play a positive role in the region.
Finally, the U.S. government should provide funding for the many local governance councils that have sprung up organically across Syria. In regions abandoned by the Assad regime, civilians have done their best to form local governments and provide basic services to residents, but are struggling without resources. Communities have elected leaders and representative councils, created justice systems, organized schooling and garbage collection, and kept utilities running. However, cut off from central government funding, some of these enthusiastic attempts at democracy are waning. The United States cannot afford to let fledgling Syrian institutions and good will deteriorate. U.S. support can help create an environment in which democratic institutions and rule of law will flourish, undermining the efforts of enemies to create chaos and giving a democratic Syria every chance it needs to succeed.
I was born and raised in Daraya with my brothers and sisters. Many of my relatives still live in Daraya, and, following last month’s massacre and the death of my cousin, I fear for their lives. I last spoke to my mother on August 25 and have struggled to contact my family since. The feeling of helplessness that results from searching for the names of dead relatives on casualty lists posted on the internet is indescribable — how much more unbearable must be the pain of those truly living the Syrian nightmare. And as I scroll through the names of the dead, desperately hoping that the rest of my family lives, so too do I hope that the United States would muster the courage to act to help bring the suffering of the Syrian people to an end.
Radwan Ziadeh is the Director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies and is a Senior Fellow at the US. Institute of Peace and a Fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.