March 22, 2021 — New York
This piece originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post.
A few days before the Syrian conflict’s 10th anniversary, Bashar Assad and his wife tested positive for COVID-19. No doubt they are getting the kind of care other heads of state have managed to receive as they self-isolate for a couple of weeks.
Sheltering in place has been the norm for the Syrian president for much of the past decade. He rarely has traveled outside of Damascus to see firsthand the vast destruction of lives, homes, hospitals and schools wrought by his decisions to brutally confront citizens of all ages who oppose his rule.
Efforts to respond to a polio outbreak in the conflict’s early years and the current coronavirus have been hampered by a weakened, overwhelmed healthcare system.
Assad compounded the damage to his own country by inviting Russia and Iran to provide fighters and weapons that have ensured his regime’s Pyrrhic victory. His trips outside of Syria have been limited to Russia – Moscow in 2015 and Sochi in 2017 – to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and to Iran in February 2019, where he met with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani. The Arab League expelled Syria in 2011.
“Mr. al-Assad has shown that maximum violence against civilian dissent can be a winning strategy,” New York Times reporter Anne Barnard wrote in 2019.
From arrests and torture, to shooting bullets or dropping bombs, to employing chemical weapons, the scope of decimation has been well chronicled. Nearly 600,000 have died, though the number could be higher, and more than half of the prewar population of 21 million are living as refugees in neighboring countries or are internally displaced within Syria’s borders.
Nearly half of the five million refugees are under the age of 18. Most Syrian children cannot imagine a future in their country, concluded Save the Children in a new report. “On average, 86% of Syrian refugee children surveyed in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and the Netherlands said they would not want to return to their country of origin. Of children displaced inside Syria, one in three would rather be living in another country.”
An International Committee of Red Cross survey found that 47% of young people said a close relative or friend had been killed in the conflict, 16% of young Syrians said at least one of their parents was killed or seriously injured, 12% had themselves been injured in the conflict, and 62% reported having to leave their homes.
The Assad family has ruled Syria for 50 years, but Bashar’s war against the Syrian people has in many ways destroyed the country that he inherited from his late father, Hafez.
“Syria has been transformed almost beyond recognition,” writes Itamar Rabinovich and Carmit Valensi in their new book, Syrian Requiem: The Civil War and its Aftermath.
The estimated million or so refugees who were able to get to Europe, and in smaller numbers to the United States and Canada, “are unlikely to return,” and though the Assad regime “expresses support for the return of all refugees,” a welcome mat is not being prepared for the 3.25 million in Turkey, close to a million in Lebanon, and close to 700,000 in Jordan, observe Rabinovich and Valensi.
The long-term presence of Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey will have untold ramifications for these countries that became unwitting hosts of the bulk of Syrian refugees, comprising the largest population displacement since World War II.
The United States, apart from sponsoring numerous UN Security Council resolutions from the earliest days of the conflict, nearly all vetoed by Russia and China, has mainly been a spectator.
The US understandably was reluctant to risk getting mired in another Middle East conflict, after Afghanistan and Iraq. But president Barack Obama’s failure to act on his warning to Assad that continued use of chemical weapons to kill Syrians would cross a redline signaled that the US would not intervene. President Donald Trump authorized one military strike on a Syrian airfield following a chemical attack, and President Joe Biden ordered an attack unrelated to Assad on an Iranian military post near the Iraqi border.
Israel, however, has had no choice but to do whatever it can to prevent Iran from establishing a permanent military presence in Syria.
Much of the world still has not acknowledged the Iranian threat, its support for Hezbollah, operations in Syria, development of ballistic missiles, and continuing work to achieve a nuclear weapon.
In addition, Lebanon is still suffering from the massive Beirut Port explosion last August; and the failure to identify and bring to justice those responsible has further emboldened Hezbollah, Iran’s terrorist proxy, which also played a crucial and destructive role fighting in Syria in support of Assad.
Assad, one of the wiliest Arab leaders, survived the so-called Arab Spring and, so far, the civil war in Syria, too. Today he controls only about 60% of his country.
Syria remains a tinderbox, with potential conflagrations that could affect all its neighbors.
The Biden administration should consider a fresh approach to the Syria crisis as it weighs US engagement with the Middle East region.
The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.