America needs a real policy regarding Syria

Apr 17

A version of this was published in the Florida Times Union on April 10, 2017

How do you solve a problem like Syria? First, by being honest. This maybe the greatest humanitarian tragedy of our lifetime. Earlier this month, the number of Syrian refugee crossed 5 million with half of those being children. A conflict that began in March 2011 with ordinary Syrians protesting their government, today has ended up claiming over 300,000 lives, including 90,000 civilian, of which 16,000 are children. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights today over 6.6 million Syrians are internally displaced. This in a country of 23 million. Today more than 80 percent of the population lives in poverty.

But who is paying attention? Who is trying to solve it? Certainly not our politicians. In the campaign trail, Donald Trump used Syrian refugees as props to scare the electorate. Baseless allegations were made about improper vetting process to further obfuscate an already complicated issue. Once in office, President Trump issued an executive order to indefinitely ban all Syrian refugees from entering the United States. After the latest round of chemical attacks on Syrian civilians, Trump has made a U-turn and lobbed 59 cruise missiles into Syria, claiming to do this in the name of the Syrian children that he is trying his utmost to keep out of America. Trump’s decision to effectively declare war on Syria is now being hailed by members of U.S. Congress, from both parties, although a few voices are speaking out in protest. But this is the same Congress that just a few years ago refused to take a vote on then President Obama’s request to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for his chemical attacks on civilians that claimed many times more lives than the attacks did just a few days ago.

President Obama can legitimately claim that his efforts to punish Assad was rebuffed by Congress. But he bears significant blame for not taking more steps to avert this tragedy. After our fiasco in Iraq and Afghanistan, I am in the camp of those who are very skeptical U.S. military entanglements abroad, particularly in the Middle East. Syria is not an American problem but America as the world’s leader bears culpability in not being able to solve this problem or at least minimize the harm. President Obama could have done more. He could have expended his political capital (he remains America’s most popular politician), both at home and abroad to rally a coalition that would have placed greater pressure on both Russia and Iran. He could have shamed Russia and China on the world stage for repeatedly thwarting efforts at the U.N. for more effective financial and political sanctions on Assad. He could have explored the use of other international bodies such as NATO to create a no-fly zone over Syria. All of these may not have led to a political resolution but it would have at least minimized the harm to Syrian civilians.

Now the ball is in President Trump’s court. What he will do is anyone’s guess. He bombed Syria but is still uncommitted on what to do about Assad. His UN Ambassador, Nikki Haley, made a theatrical presentation at the UN using pictures of dead Syrian children, but is unwilling to call out Putin by name. Now that Trump has a change of heart about Syrian children, will he advocate for greater refugee resettlement from Syria? If not, then what did spending millions of dollars on cruise missiles accomplish?

Finally, what is it about our American psyche that we cheer American bombs falling on foreign soil? What does it tell about us, that it took the Commander-in-Chief to authorize lobbing missiles from a distance, for him to be called a real President by a leading media commentator, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria? Syria is not a prop to be used for political theater. To gain votes one year and to gain ratings the next. We need bipartisan leadership to stop this tragedy. Our children and grandchildren will ask, what did you do when you saw pictures of young Syrian children washing up lifeless on distant shores?