The humanitarian crisis amidst civil war in Syria shows no sign of waning. Having Jewish grandparents survive WWII Hungary (while most in their family were not so lucky), I have found it deplorable that the world has not stepped in. However, this issue takes a lot more than news sound bites and twitter feeds demanding we aid the #syrianrefugees. How do we actually do that? Empty the country of Syria into the U.S.? Empty the country of Syria into a conglomerate of countries? Take a military position to end the civil war? Which side do we take? If that were only a simple question.
On the surface, it seems obvious. Assad, with help from Putin, has been committing atrocities against his own people for years. This is only the latest time he has been accused of using chemical weapons against civilians. (I say accused because Assad denies responsibility for the attack, and blames one of the many other groups fighting in this war. By all accounts, it is doubtful that Assad is innocent of the charge- none of the insurgent groups are believed to have access to chemical weapons or the warplanes that were seen dropping them.)
This Civil War arose from the turbulent “Arab Spring”, when the people rose up against their oppressive leaders, including Assad, in 2011. That would have been the time to support the overthrow of this long oppressive government. The Free Syrian Army, comprised of defecting Syrian military, were the primary group seeking to tip Assad from power. The uprising began in Syria when a group of teenagers who had graffitied revolutionist sentiments were arrested and tortured. Hundreds of protestors were killed in the governments’ swift and harsh reaction. When sent to put down more protests, military personnel began refusing to open fire, defecting, putting loyalty to the people above the regime. The FSA, through primarily guerrilla warfare and attacks on the military, took control of more and more areas.
Foreign governments, including the United States did supply significant ammunition to the FSA. However, two years into the unresolved war, many other factions and foreign interests had been looking to hijack control of Syria’s future. Foreign combatants poured into Syria. Competing opposition groups, such as Islamic al-Nusra Front broke off from and/or infiltrated the FSA. One key group to do so was ISIL. By 2014, FSA was believed to have devolved to a mere secular front for ISIL, siphoning Western aid and weapons to ISIL. At this point, it is unclear who or what is the real FSA, and where its interests are now aligned.
FSA and its affiliated opposition groups have been themselves called out by human rights watch groups and the U.N., for committing war crimes- including kidnappings, tortures, and executions. The U.N. has verified FSA’s use of child soldiers.
Russia has backed Assad and justifies their support by pointing to the terrorist groups such as ISIL that have become a significant part of the revolution against Assad’s regime. Their bombings, alleged to be aimed at ISIL forces, have hit ISIL as well as anti-government forces not associated with terrorists, causing the world to question whether the quelling of terrorism is Russia’s interest, versus the propping up of Assad. Syria’s dependence on Russia has created an uncomfortable power dynamic in the always delicate region. The United States and other Western governments do not want Assad or Putin to control this sensitive area- but have cringed when called upon to take direct military action to aid their opponents.
Why? Most importantly- we have learned the hard lesson that the tyrants of today can appear quite moderate in contrast to their replacements. It is an enormous challenge to take responsibility for assisting any religious-based group into power, not always clear on which group will turn out to instill an even more extremist regime. This is not a country where the majority of the country demands a secular democracy, and we can simply provide the tools to rid them of their oppressors. Most of these groups are far from secular, and their rise to power could lead to a simple substitution of abusive power, or an even worse, a terrorist-affiliated government.
Why else? Russia has picked their side, making it clear that Assad’s is the legal government, and they are merely assisting in stabilizing that government and putting down criminal factions. Already unclear as to who we would be fighting for on the opposing side and their intentions for the future of Syria, we do know who we would be fighting against- Russia. While we no longer live in a constant state of dread of nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia, many have not forgotten, and are loath to jump into a potentially devastating world war, and potential destabilization of the fragile semblance of peace between world powers, including China.
What is the right answer? Syria is filled with many religious extremists and terrorists. It also is home to so many ordinary civilians, who simply want to live in peace. How do we tell them apart? How can the U.S. participate in stabilizing this country? Do we try to save the “good” people and take them to safety and abandon the country? Do we back an opposition group and hope that they are not tomorrows’ enemy? Do we take control of a country that cannot govern itself? What would that look like? We tried it in Iraq. Would Russia allow that and are we willing to go to war if they don’t? Do we allow the country to be divided up among the different religious and world factions- could that ever bring peace, and would we be sentencing so many to doomed lives under extremists or dictators? I don’t know. I don’t have much faith in Trump on an easy issue, so I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know the answer to this one. Do you? Let’s hear it- #speakup #worldpeace doesn’t come easy.