This is a contribution to ‘What Should the United States Do About Syria?: A TNR Symposium.’
Let there be no doubt: With 6,000 dead and more than 50,000 displaced, the crisis in Syria has reached the point of no return, and the people of Syria are begging for help. We Syrians had hoped that the international community could cooperate in helping lift us from the daily terror we live in, but with the Security Council in stalemate, it is hard not to feel abandoned by it. Instead, we turn to the United States, which we know can still make a difference.
That’s not to suggest that Washington hasn’t been helpful already. We appreciate that the Obama administration has repeatedly issued demands for Bashar al-Assad to cede power, and that, together with the EU, the Arab League, and Turkey, it has implemented sanctions to undermine the regime. But more decisive action is needed. Sanctions and statements have failed to stop the killing, and Syrians are seeking help on multiple fronts.
Humanitarian aid is absolutely essential. The United States should help ensure the delivery of food and medical supplies to Syria’s most besieged communities. Currently, it is impossible for injured civilians in some areas to receive treatment, because there is often no consistent electricity to service our makeshift hospitals. In certain parts of the country, ordinary Syrians have been going without food—both because the availability of fresh food has plummeted due to the violence, and because people are increasingly unable to leave their homes for any reason at all.
Of course, the United States cannot simply enter a live conflict zone in order to distribute aid. That’s why, together with its allies in the Arab world, Washington should establish safe zones—designated areas of ceasefire, protected by armed peacekeepers, where Syrians can come to seek refuge. The ideal place to do this would be in Syria, along the Turkish border. Once they have been established, the United States should try to set up a limited no-fly zone over these designated safe areas.
The United States doesn’t need to act alone. There are a number of other countries that would probably be willing to join a humanitarian coalition for this purpose. But the United States would likely have to take the initiative in forging it.
In doing so, Washington should vigorously engage the Syrian National Council, Syria’s peaceful opposition. The SNC is remarkably representative of not only the Syrian opposition, but also of the Syrian population as a whole. Its leadership and general membership include representatives from all of Syria’s ethnic, political, and religious groups. And while the leadership of the SNC is based outside Syria, it is well connected with actors on the ground—indeed, it is already coordinating with them to determine the country’s political future. It is true that Arab countries have been reluctant to officially recognize the SNC, but that was also the case with the Libyan opposition: Then as now, Arab countries are waiting to follow the cues of Western nations.
If the United States does successfully build a partnership with Syria’s democratic opposition right now, at its time of greatest need, it will have earned a steadfast regional ally for the long-term. Indeed, Syria’s political future, and its future alliances, are currently up for grabs. In that way, there are important strategic, as well as humanitarian, issues at stake. Washington ought to take the opportunity to build a bridge to the Syrian people and encourage their democratic inclinations.
What’s undeniable is that Syrian people are in desperate need of humanitarian aid as well as political and economic assistance. Assad has proven he will not relent, with the Interior Ministry vowing that it will continue to implement the “security solution” until every expression of resistance is eliminated. With Russia and China essentially giving the green light for Assad to continue his massacre, only an international coalition led by the United States can stop the regime’s violence. The hope for a democratic future in Syria currently hangs in the balance.
Radwan Ziadeh is a spokesperson for the Syrian National Council and executive director of the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Washington.