Bessma Momani is a senior fellow at CIGI and Brookings Institution and an associate professor at the University of Waterloo. You can find her on Twitter as @b_momani
As a political analyst, I can comprehend the plausible geostrategic and political reasons to explain why, despite international recognition for the Syrian National Coalition, the reality on the ground will change little. And why, despite the over 60,000 Syrians killed, the red line for the international community remains the use of chemical weapons.
The use of chemical weapons sets a dangerous precedent in a region with significant stockpiles and plenty of conflict. By labeling this as the red line, international governments are trying to send a warning signal to all regional players about the boundaries of acceptability.
I can also understand the Obama Administration’s quick move to identify the extremist group, Jabhat al-Nusra, a terrorist organization. At one level, the move can be seen as a strategy to quell a testy Congress that had become obsessed with the government’s failure to predict a blowback of radicals in Libya who took the life of state department employees. Recognizing the Nusra Front as a terrorist organization, before the US government acknowledged the Syrian National Coalition as the recognized representative of the Syrian people, reassured Congress—and the world—that the Obama Administration would not ignore extremist forces.
At the same time, the US has resisted labeling the Assad army as a terrorist organization, a move that has enormous implications if there is a negotiated solution to the end of this crisis. The US government is keenly aware that it failed in Iraq by encouraging de-Baathification following the removal of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Keeping the Syrian army off a terrorist list will allow some elements of the brass to play a “legitimate” role in a new Syria and encourage more defections within the armed forces and Assad regime in the coming months.
But, these so-called geopolitical explanations are also excuses for inaction.
The sad truth is that many more Syrians will die and the international community, including us analysts, will find plenty of reasons to justify inaction. None of these reasons will comfort Syrians who remain perplexed by why the world ignores their plight, day after day. Over half a million people have fled the country, an average of over 800 a day, with millions of others trapped and internally displaced. There is an unknown number of political prisoners, but estimates of 25,000 are noted, being held in Assad army camps. Many Syrians I’ve interviewed estimate that nearly 20 children have been killed nearly every single day in Syria over the past two years.
But, while the geopolitical considerations for inaction are many, reasons to act are plenty as well. Inaction can lead to long-term consequences. Thirty-six percent of the Syrian population are children under the age of 14, and 24% of the population is between the ages of 14-24, according to the World Bank. Not only is their education interrupted, but they are living without homes and with increased hopelessness. The long-term psychological damage on an entire generation of Syrians has yet to be played out.
Syria is being destroyed, one beautiful city after another, right before our eyes. Schools, hospitals, parks, private businesses, and entire public infrastructure are completely gone. There are fewer homes and places of work for Syrian refugees to return to, with each passing day.
Already, this instability is spilling into Lebanon. Already, this helplessness has taken root in extremism. It’s been too long that we’ve tried to justify our ‘Syria strategy’.
How many Syrians must die for the world to act?