Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN negotiator on Syria, has resigned in frustration after two years of stymied effort and the failure of the peace conferences in Geneva. As Brahimi’s tireless diplomatic effort came to nothing, it became clear that the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had no interest in supporting negotiations that would lead to a transition government. It was all or nothing for Assad, a man who sees himself entitled to rule Syria. Last December, the UN announced that it had found evidence that President Assad was involved in war crimes and human rights abuses.
Another dismal evaluation of the Syrian situation was made by Sen. John McCain during his keynote address at the EU-Washington Forum on May 20 in Washington. He warned that the Middle East is becoming engulfed in an escalating regional conflict centering on Syria. The fighting has been going on for over three years between the forces of Bashar al-Assad and various opposition groups. Over 160,000 people have been killed. There are 9.3 million Syrians in need of humanartian assistance. Nearly half of the country’s population has been displaced from their homes. Every fifteen minutes two Syrians are killed, 45 become refugees and 15 families are driven out of their homes. The UN considers Syria the greatest humanartian tragedy of our time.
Sen. McCain went on to say that Assad’s forces have abused and tortured detainees, they demolish entire neighborhoods as a form of collective punishment. Assad’s aircraft are dropping crude barrel bombs to terrorize civilians. The regime is supported by Hezbollah fighters and Iranian agents. Weapons from Russia continue to flow without restriction to the Assad government. With support from Russia, Hezbollah and Iran, Assad is winning.
This disaster is no longer a humanartian tragedy for one country. It is a regional conflict and a threat that is affecting neighboring countries. There are bombings in Lebanon and cross-border attacks by Syrian forces and opposition fighters. Nearly half the population of Lebanon is now composed of Syrian refugees. In Jordan, the rate is 15%. Al-Qaeda in Iraq is growing stronger due to the safe havens available in the border region of both counties.
The U.S. and the international community have been reluctant to provide the opposition military support. The U.S. could upgrade the capabilities of the anti-Assad and anti- al-Qaeda opposition forces. We could provide anti-aircraft and tank destroying weapons. U.S. airpower could be deployed to protect civilian safe zones. Assad’s airbases could be destroyed, that would put an end to the barrel bombing campaign. The longer the war goes on, the harder it will be to put Syria back together again. McCain also said he understood why President Obama says there are no good options. And after Iraq and Afghanistan, why the American public does not want to get involved in Syria.
Other analysts are equally gloomy. Iraq has been supporting Assad. If the supply of weapons and fighters from outside of Syria cannot be halted by diplomatic agreement, the country could disintegrate into a failed state. The growing refugee problem is destabilizing neighboring countries and stressing UN financial resources, the agency is seeking $6.5 billion for Syrian relief. As the situation inside Syria continues to worsen, there are indications that more sophisticated weapons from Saudi and American sources are clandestinely making their way to opposition groups friendly to the West. Given the current miserable circumstances, it may be that the thinking in Washington has changed. The least bad option may be to help get rid of Assad and hope that the more troublesome Islamist militants can be controlled later on. Unfortunately, the U.S. experience in Afghanistan and Iraq indicates that it will be a very ugly and difficult process.