Photo credit: "Azaz, Syria" by Christiaan Triebert - Flickr: Azaz, Syria. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
I recently saw a powerful PBS documentary on the Syrian civil war, Return to Homs. Through its focus on the journey of a star soccer player, Abdul Basset al-Saroot, from nonviolent protester to hardened fighter, it showed the appalling toll of the conflict.
“What has been taking place in Syria for the past four years is the worst humanitarian and moral catastrophe of the twenty-first century,” University of Denver Professor Nader Hashemi, co-editor of The Syria Dilemma, tells me. “These are not my words, but those of the United Nations.”
There is no doubting the magnitude of the crisis. Possibly 200,000 people have been killed. A mindboggling 10 million Syrians have been displaced, with approximately 4 million fleeing to neighboring countries. The war’s impact has been so dire that even polio, almost eradicated from the face of the Earth, has made a comeback in the country.
The political consequences for the Middle East have also been profound. Problems ranging from the Islamic State group to the Shiite-Sunni schism have arisen largely from the Syrian civil war.
“Strategically, all roads lead to Damascus,” says Hashemi. “Without a political settlement in Syria, there is no solution to the ISIS crisis or to the problem of sectarianism that is tearing the region apart. In short, Syria is the strategic center of the Middle East: What happens there affects everybody.”
So, what can be done?
Hashemi urges immediate international intervention.
“The global community needs to enforce U.N. resolutions that call for ending of the starvation sieges and the gross violations of human rights,” he says. “And it should organize an international peace conference.”
If the United States puts its mind to it, Hashemi says, there can be concrete results before too long.
“If John Kerry and President Obama devoted half the energy and enthusiasm we saw with the Iran nuclear deal to the question of Syria, we could have a negotiated settlement,” he adds. “Only the United States of America can lead this process. I would like to see the foreign ministers of the permanent U.N. Security Council members and Germany plus Iran and Saudi Arabia locked in a room with Syrian representatives until a settlement is reached.”
Hashemi and Danny Postel, his The Syria Dilemma co-editor and University of Denver colleague, contend that the Syrian Freedom Charter offers a blueprint for Syria’s future. The document, based on interviews with more than 50,000 Syrians that the country’s civil society groups put together last October, envisions an inclusive, free Syria that respects the rights of everyone.
Civil society outfits offer glimmers of hope in Syria’s otherwise bleak landscape.
“From the beginning of the Syrian uprising, unarmed activists have formed, under the worst security conditions imaginable, local councils to provide governmental services to their neighbors,” Middle East analyst Frederic C. Hof writes in The Washington Post. “There are today hundreds of local councils throughout non-Assad parts of Syria. All of this is new to Syria. It is the essence of the Syrian Revolution.”
Hof urges close global engagement with these institutions.
“The alternative to Assad is arising from Syria’s grassroots,” he adds. “That alternative needs to be nurtured and protected by the United States and its partners.”
The international community needs to offer such projects its enthusiastic support—and work more diligently toward ending the civil war.