Media reports suggest that the Syrian conflict may be winding down, but don’t tell that to the nearly 2.9 million people – 241, 667 per month, 7,945 per day – forced out of their homes in Syria just last year. The attacks in the eastern Ghouta province in the past few months have already resulted in the displacement of more than 175,000 Syrians. We can imagine the disaster if the war continues. How to bring it to an end?
Retaliatory bombings in response to chemical attacks on innocent civilians will not suffice. In April 2017, President Donald Trump decided to carry out an airstrike on the Shayrat Airbase as a punishment for the Syrian regime’s chemical attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun. But that did not deter the Assad regime from using chemical weapons just a year later in a chemical attack of similar size and scale on the town of Douma, a suburb of Damascus. The attack killed more than 50 people and left more than 100 wounded.
These two incidents were not the only times that the Syrian regime resorted to chemical attacks against its own people, nor will they be the last. During the course of the seven-year war in Syria, the Assad regime has repeatedly used sarin gas and chlorine. Attacks with chlorine have never elicited a significant military or non-military response. On April 13, 2015, for example, there was a massive chlorine gas attack on the city of Dara’a in southwestern Syria that went unchecked by the international community.
Despite United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution 2118 – adopted unanimously in response to a sarin attack in September 2013 – the regime did not hesitate to carry out additional attacks. That year, Assad learned an essential lesson; i.e., that there would be no massive, regime-threatening response for crossing Obama’s “red line.” No matter the crime – and these attacks clearly constitute war crimes – there would be no meaningful response.
Assad’s impunity rests on his backing from Russia and his knowledge that the United States’s priority in Syria has always been to destroy the Islamic State – not to remove Assad from power. These developments have emboldened Assad to pursue whatever course he wishes without being stopped and held accountable. And what a better ally than Russia, which has repeatedly used its veto in the UN Security Council to block international efforts to hold the regime accountable for its war crimes?
The Syrian population includes rebels who will fight Assad to their last breath, nonviolent civilians who reject the regime’s violent and totalitarian rule, and large numbers of internally displaced persons driven from front-line areas. The latter’s numbers will keep multiplying as long as the war continues.
They say that evil prevails when good men fail to act. At this point, in fact, the entire international community should act. The United States, in particular, should mobilize its allies in support of a peaceful and just resolution to the Syrian crisis and a smooth transition in power. If this does not occur, the war may well drag on for years to come.
The international community should take several steps to end this conflict. First, it should prohibit the Syrian regime from carrying out air raids on civilians with rockets and barrel bombs, not just chemical ones. A No-Fly-Zone is still one of the options that should be considered.
Second, it needs to remove all foreign forces and sectarian militias from Syria. The foreign intervention in the country is only prolonging the conflict. For the past seven years, Syria has been a battleground for a proxy war between many nations. It is critical to end outside interference as soon as possible.
Third, it is even more important to honor the Geneva Conventions, and to wind down the war and negotiate its aftermath under international supervision. There should be an international commitment to end the siege in dozens of areas and to end the humanitarian crisis for good by facilitating the safe and voluntary return of refugees to their cities and homes. Of course, many displaced Syrians will need to be incorporated into their host states, and particularly vulnerable refugees will need to be resettled in third countries in far larger numbers. The world’s largest refugee resettlement state, the United States, has resettled a paltry 50 Syrian refugees over the first six months of this fiscal year.
Without these steps, Syria and its displaced citizens will remain at the mercy of a brutal regime. The war has created all manner of agony, crisis, and divisions among Syrian society and beyond. Millions of refugees wait endlessly in camps. Others roam the world with no viable, permanent solution in sight. One point is certain: Syria will not be able to reconstitute itself as a unified, democratic country under its outlaw regime.