The humanitarian crisis in Syria has recently been dubbed the worst of our time. More than four years have passed since catastrophe ensued and virtually no progress has been made toward a resolution. Civilians are slaughtered, tortured, and detained daily by the Syrian government. However, the advent of ISIS and their expanding power and influence over the region has decreased global concern for crimes committed by and on behalf of the Assad regime. Even our own communities have drifted into a state of reserve. Mass protests, campaigns, and social media activism devoted to raising awareness about these crimes have lulled. The majority of activists have shifted their efforts to focus on treating the symptoms of the war, rather than addressing its root causes. Certainly, the lack of political action around this crisis is beyond demoralizing; however, by failing to sustain our protest against the Assad regime, we are inadvertently allowing the international community to legitimize its actions.
This past May, Amnesty International published a report detailing a small fraction of the human rights abuses and violations of international law committed predominantly by the Syrian government in Aleppo. Their findings are unfathomable. Throughout the report, the organization repeatedly emphasizes that the Syrian population is suffering “unthinkable atrocities.” Homes, schools, hospitals, aid centers, and religious buildings are attacked indiscriminately by the Syrian army. The majority of these crimes involve the use of barrel bombs, a crude form weaponry consisting of oil canisters filled with explosives, fuel, metal fragments and even chlorine gas.
Syrians interviewed by Amnesty describe the feeling of constantly being on the brink of death, “always nervous, always worried, always looking to the sky.” More than 220,000 Syrians have been murdered since the onset of the war. Eleven million, formerly half of the country’s population, have been uprooted from their homes. Of these individuals, 7.6 million are stuck within the country’s borders without means to escape or continue living. This year, more than 11,000 people have been murdered thus far, and the vast majority by the Assad regime.
Reports exposing the government’s various atrocities have helped garner sympathy for its victims but failed to provoke sufficient political intervention to end to its crimes. Moreover, the international community’s lack of decisive action has cemented a “culture of impunity;” the United States government has particularly aggregated the war more than it has assisted in facilitating conflict transformation. When ISIS began making gains in Syria less than a year ago, the Obama administration authorized air strikes against the militant group in an effort to “hunt down terrorists who threaten America.” Incidentally, this decision put our war efforts in unity with those of Assad, causing an abrupt change in our view of the regime from a passive adversary to a potential ally. Since then, many Western leaders have implied a commitment to this stance, stating that the solution to the Syrian crisis “will likely include some elements of the regime.”
Despite the numerous violations of international law and war crimes it has committed over the past four years, our national leaders chose to ignore the Assad regime as it desecrated Syria. It was not until the very moment the crisis became so out of hand and it began to infringe on our national interests that our foreign policy officials finally decided to take action. Our apathy to human suffering has cornered us into dealing with the devil. Had we afforded some semblance of compassion prior to the advent of the ISIS, we might have found dispositions in the region held toward our nation to be a bit less hostile.
Additionally, the mainstream media narrative has chosen to focus almost exclusively on the so-called imminent threat of an “Islamist takeover” by ISIS, rendering the ongoing atrocities committed by the Syrian government virtually invisible. Have we have forgotten that the Assad regime has been reigning terror over civilians for more than twice as long as ISIS has been even remotely lethal? Certainly this so-called Islamic State has committed ghastly atrocities and should be halted in efforts. But to be very clear, their interest and ability to inflict terror on those living in Iraq and Syria is exponentially greater than it is on those living in America. Western powers tout their intentions for peace and stability in the region, yet the only time they deem a humanitarian crisis fit for intervention is when they feel their national interests are threatened. In the words of Stephen Hawking, “What is happening in Syria is an abomination. Where is our sense of collective justice?”
Fortunately, many people have been organizing various forms of relief for Syrian victims since the onset of the war. Among these initiatives are Zeitouna, a therapy wellness camp that seeks to assist the psycho-social needs of refugees living in Turkey, and NuDay Syria, a humanitarian organization that provides aid for women and children with no male breadwinners in their families. Certainly these types of programs are invaluable and should be developed further; however, we cannot let their existence reel us into complicity with the ongoing crimes of the Syrian government. The efforts we dedicate toward helping Syria should not focus solely on mending the lives of escapees until the Assad regime ceases persecuting those still living in the region. We must continue to prioritize building and strengthening grassroots movements that help the Syrian people attain their autonomy (see Students Organize for Syria).
The Palestine solidarity movement is perhaps one of the best models we have for developing a sustainable movement that will yield real change in Syria. When Gaza was under attack one year ago, we organized mass political actions against the Israeli government until it surrendered to international pressures and ended its assault. Of course, the conflict in Syria is vastly different and arguably more complicated. Our government’s common enemy in region with the regime certainly makes advocating for its deposition more difficult, but this challenge should not discourage us from trying.
History has proved time and time again that when we put our national interests above the values of human rights, we suffer the consequences. Efforts to attain genuine peace in Syria, Iraq and other countries affected by ISIS and Assad’s regime will not prevail until the principles of respect and dignity for human life penetrate our nation’s foreign policy. When world leaders reject this notion, it is our civic and religious duty to bring these values back into their consciousness and to fight for Syrian people’s steadfast right to actualize their dreams of peace, prosperity and political freedom.
Written by Nour Azzouz