President Barack Obama and Gov. Romney agreed on US policy towards Syria. They insisted that President Bashar Assad must go. They agreed on finding ways to support certain opponents of the regime, and provide humanitarian assistance. And they aligned on barring American military intervention of any kind. In a politically deeply divided US, there is bipartisan support for standing on the sidelines – and that message was heard in Damascus.
Syrian opponents of the Assad regime, hoping that a lifeline still might come from the United States, got their final answer during the third and last presidential debate. They are alone.
Within hours after the Boca Raton debate, Syria’s air force took to the skies again to resume bombing cities, and soldiers with tanks and other weapons continued brutal assaults in towns and villages across the country. Those Syrians able to flee their homes are daily joining up with the 400,000 refugees in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. In addition, the UN estimates that some 2.5 million are internally displaced within Syria.
US leadership is essential,” says Radwan Ziadeh, a Syrian human rights activist temporarily based in Washington.
We spoke soon after his return from a visit to Syria, his first since the Assad regime forced him into exile five years ago. Ziadeh has been a persistent voice of reason and conscience, often quoted in the media while keeping those who are interested and concerned abreast of the regime’s continuing atrocities.
His own hometown was recently subjected to a series of massacres that made it impossible for him to visit.
Amid the chaos enveloping the country, Ziadeh told me there are “islands” of territory liberated by rebel forces. In one such area in the north, he found hopeful signs that gave him confidence that one day he would be able to return to Daraya, his birthplace in southern Syria.
How to better coordinate the disparate rebel groups holding such “islands,” was a goal of the Doha gathering of Assad’s opponents – those who still are in Syria and others who left the country – that ended in an agreement to form a new umbrella group. It is the kind of unified opposition that the US, in particular, has been seeking, although without any promises of what would follow from Washington.
But the rebels are still at the mercy of a brutal dictator who is convinced that he is battling for Syria.
“We do not have a civil war,” Assad said in a TV interview last Friday. “It is about terrorism and the support coming from abroad to terrorists to destabilize Syria.”
Don’t count on Assad suddenly proposing to sit down with the leaders of the unified opposition.
“I felt he was in denial,” Kofi Annan, told The New York Times after stepping down as the UN-Arab League envoy to resolve the Syria crisis.
“He felt like most of his problems were being caused by outsiders; if outsiders were to leave Syria alone, they would resolve their problems in no time.”
Assad is right about outsiders intervening, but they are there to defend his regime.
They came from Iran, and from Hezbollah. Russia has provided a ceaseless supply of arms, and together with China, has prevented any meaningful UN Security Council action.
There are serious concerns about Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons. Here, Moscow has concurred with the US and other Western powers, warning Assad against using those weapons of mass destruction.
But US-Russia agreement on what to do about Syria ends there.
What about the regime’s arsenals of conventional weapons? The continuing resistance in the US to even a serious discussion about imposing a no-fly zone is mind-boggling. Forcibly grounding the Syrian air force – jet fighters and helicopters – would be a game changer. It could offer some balance between Syrian government and opposition forces, lead to initiatives for providing desperately needed humanitarian aid, and lessen tensions with neighboring countries.
Lakhdar Brahimi, Annan’s successor as UN-Arab League envoy and one of the few world leaders to meet with Assad in Damascus, calls the current situation “a big catastrophe” and warns of “the danger of Somalization,” in Syria.
“It will mean the fall of the state, [the] rise of war lords and militias.”
Brahimi’s own efforts to negotiate a cease-fire during Eid al-Fitr failed as miserably as Annan’s.
Thanks to Assad, the situation in Syria is by far the most deadly crisis in the region today. It risks further mayhem and needless suffering in Syria, as well as more violent spillover into Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and now Israel.
The threat to regional security requires White House decisions that can stem the bloodshed that has left so far some 40,000 dead since the ferocious crackdown began 20 months ago.
The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.