In a rare venture into current events, the head of Yad Vashem has spoken out about the urgency of humanitarian disaster in Syria. After the forces backing Syrian dictator Bashir al-Assad succeeded in taking the rebel-controlled areas of Aleppo last week, murderous retribution unfolded and terrified residents fled for their lives.
Avner Shalev, chair of Yad Vashem, said “the global community must put a stop to these atrocities and avert further suffering, as well as provide humanitarian assistance to the victims seeking safe haven.”
It is not insignificant that the head of the world’s leading Holocaust museum and memorial would be moved to speak out on the subject. The atrocities the world is seeing stir memories of the past. No history is precisely like other history, obviously, and making direct comparisons can be unhelpful. Yet, after the Second World War, as the extent of the Holocaust became understood, international agencies, nations and individuals committed to a future free of those sorts of atrocities. Those promises have been betrayed too many times in the seven decades since, most recently in Syria.
When we look back in history, we ask, why didn’t this party or that country do more? Why was this or that allowed to happen? How did the world not step in sooner, when evidence began to mount about the rising danger of authoritarianism? Questions and answers are easier in hindsight. Yet there can be no doubt that Syria has presented especially difficult choices, even for actors who want to do the right thing.
U.S. President Barack Obama has insisted through the years of the Syrian civil war, which began at the time of the Arab Spring in 2011, that there was no military solution to the problem; that diplomacy had to prevail. He may have been correct that there was no military resolution. There are multiple bad guys in this fight – Assad’s regime, backed by Iran, Hezbollah and Russia, on one side, and al-Qaeda and ISIS on the other. And, on the third side – because this is, vexingly, a multiple-sided conflict – is an amalgam of defectors from the Syrian military, Kurdish militias, and other anti-Assad forces who may have democratic and pluralist intents. Or, were they to be victorious – which now seems unlikely in the extreme – they could split among themselves, their only cohesion perhaps being the glue of opposition to Assad. By one count, what we call the Syrian civil war is as many as 10 separate conflicts. The United States, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar have provided some support to the rebels, but it has been unreliable and uncoordinated. Estimates of the number of civilians and fighters killed range from 312,000 to more than 400,000.
Civilians casualties have been enormous, with all sides indiscriminately attacking civilian targets. Torture and extrajudicial killings typify the regime’s approach to war. Assad’s forces have also been accused of deliberately targeting medical installations and personnel. When the United Nations was able to secure humanitarian aid routes within Syria to provide food and medicine, the regime ensured that aid reached government-controlled areas and prevented aid from reaching rebel-controlled areas.
Negotiations have gone nowhere, because Assad is determined to hold on to power no matter how much of his population dies in the process, and he has powerful military friends in Russia and Iran who back his iron fist. The opposition is unequivocal that Assad must be deposed. There is no room for negotiation.
And so, the matter has come down to military might, with the last stronghold of the opposition crushed in recent days. Assad has now regained control of almost all the population centres of the country, with the rebels limited to peripheral enclaves.
In the process of the civil war, half of Syria’s population has been uprooted – six million people are displaced internally and another six million have been made refugees, with global implications, as European, American and other politicians have exploited fears of radicalization among refugees to advance their own xenophobic agendas. The effect may ultimately unravel the entire European Union.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah has been significantly strengthened and ISIS, which has suffered in Syria, will likely turn its attentions to more fertile ground elsewhere. The murderous Assad regime is more secure than it has been in years. Russia is ascendant in the region and globally. The United States has been chastened, and the incoming president is, characteristically, belligerent in rhetoric but anti-interventionist in expressed policy, which indicates nothing if not pandemonium in future U.S. approaches.
The world has failed the people of Syria – and, as a result, the world is a far more dangerous place.
Significant blame for this disaster must be placed on the United Nations, the primary bodies of which are hobbled by the control of despots who owe more to Assad’s governance style than to the vision of the idealists who founded the organization. While there are agencies under the UN umbrella that do superb work, its governance structures are so dysfunctional that talk of a replacement body must continue in earnest.
The least the world should be able to do now is pressure the emboldened government of Assad to allow humanitarian aid to reach those who need it and allow his citizens to move to places of safety. Then, the world should reflect on the lessons of this catastrophic experience and promise, yet again, not to let such a thing recur. What we’re doing isn’t working. To prevent recurrence, we need to stop pursuing the definition of insanity, which involves doing the same things and expecting a different result.