Today, more than two years into Syria’s horrific civil war, the debate about “What to do?”—rumbles on.
This conflict, humanity’s first ever “YouTube war,” has brought us virtually face-to-face with the horror of war like never before. No longer can we even pretend to be at a comfortable remove from such insanity. Today we can watch raw recordings of human barbarism—rape, torture, and murder—on our computer screens just hours after the events themselves.
The resulting worldwide human outrage is putting increasing pressure on world leaders to “do something.” The big question, however, remains: “Do what?”
Loud voices continue to call for urgent military intervention to “stop the bloodshed.” But that noble objective continues, unfortunately, to look like a nearly impossible task for outsiders to achieve.
While it is crystal clear that the Assads are undoubtedly war criminals, it is also equally clear that a great many of the rebels are, too. War, particularly civil war, is always dirty. In fact, I doubt that Abraham Lincoln would be the icon he is held up to be today if Southerners had been able to record and upload videos of the atrocities inflicted upon them by his General Sherman, a “war hero” who believed that in war, “men, women, and children, must be killed or banished before you can hope for peace and order.”
Today, the following is clear. The Assad regime has very cleverly and successfully implicated the Alawites, and other non-Sunni minorities, in its defense, and hence these minorities are now also fighting what they perceive to be an existential war for their own survival. At the same time, Assad’s raw brutality, spearheaded by an Alawite Praetorian guard and actively supported by Shiite Iran and Hezbollah, has ignited a ferocious sectarian war between the Shiites and the Sunnis. This, in turn, has encouraged and provoked Jihadists to come flooding in from all over the region, empowering the Sunni Islamists to become the dominant rebel fighting force on the ground. Into this boiling cauldron has also been tossed the scourge of class conflict. It has infected the poor, frustrated, and envious peasant boys of the countryside with the urge to join the “party” so they can get (and take) their chance at raping and pillaging the cities of “the rich,” while concurrently, organized crime, abetted by both sides, spreads like wildfire.
No near-term solution
A god-awful mess that, frankly and sadly, has no near-term solution. The Assad family obviously no longer has any legitimacy to rule Syria. The Jihadi-dominated rebels, in turn, are hardly a better option and could spell disaster for Syria (and the region) if they were ever to take power. Also, there seems no realistic chance that a “civilized” alternative government, one that can wrest control away from these two equally unappetizing factions, will somehow magically emerge or be successfully inserted by outsiders. So, what does one do here? Short of a (highly unlikely to happen) full-scale, UN-sanctioned and-supported invasion by, say, Turkey, doing nothing, militarily speaking, is probably the wisest course.
In my article Syria: Our Spanish Civil War, written nearly a year ago, I predicted that the Assads would survive and fight on, that the “Jihadis [were] coming,” and that outsiders would be unable to impose a leadership onto the “rebels”—and that the only sure outcome of this mess would be a human tragedy of gigantic proportions. I concluded by arguing that instead of wasting their time trying to influence the course and outcome of this war, world powers should focus on mitigating its resultant human tragedy.
Since then, refugees have continued to pour into Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. While basic assistance is extended to them, such help remains minimal, as these refugees are stuck in miserable camps (or are left begging for shelter on the streets of Lebanon) and are mostly without work. They will soon sink deeper into poverty and misery, a condition that will eventually transform them into masses of bitter, angry people taking their frustrations out on each other and outsiders alike. Such are the natural breeding grounds for extremists and terrorists, yet we always seem to realize this dangerous consequence only after the fact.
The region does not seem to have learned the lessons of its recent history. Conflicts such as Syria’s do not produce “temporary refugee problems.” Syria’s war will be a long one. It will be many years before the country can recover and reabsorb the millions of people who have fled and will soon flee from inside its borders.
Put the money where your mouth is
World leaders, particularly the Arab leaders who are so audibly making noise on the world stage about the need to “save Syria,” should put their money where their mouth is and do the only practical thing that can now be done—which is work to help the victims of this ongoing tragedy. Instead of hogging the limelight and wasting their energies on continuous, yet futile, attempts to influence the outcome of this civil war, U.S., EU, and GCC officials should focus, rather, on the admittedly less exciting and more mundane humanitarian role that is now so urgently required of them. Here they need to use their countries’ influence and considerable resources to work toward resettling the refugees properly into the surrounding countries and into any other countries that are willing to take them.
As a first step, they should pressure the Lebanese, Jordanian, and Turkish governments to give these refugees full legal rights of residency and allow them to move freely and work, thereby affording them at least the opportunity to live decent, productive lives. Here, the donor countries should immediately make good on their previous financial commitments to these countries and, if necessary, increase the dollar amounts they give to financially stressed Lebanon and Jordan, to help them absorb these Syrians. Funds should be routed through U.N. organizations, like the UNHCR, rather than through corrupt or inefficient local governments.
At the same time, it is of vital importance that the U.S., EU, and GCC countries in turn open their own gates and allow as many Syrians in as possible, so as to reduce the dangerous demographic pressure that is now pressing down on Lebanon and Jordan, which are two small, vulnerable, and unstable countries bursting at the seams.
Meanwhile, these refugee host countries should be watched very carefully as to how they are treating their “wards” and be held publicly accountable for the conditions in which they allow them to live. This is all the more important as sad stories about the abuse these people face emerge with an ever-greater frequency.
Lebanon and Jordan, in particular, are in a panic about the potential demographic impact of these human waves, and so they are inevitably reacting, both at the official and the popular level, to these uprooted Syrians in a sometimes hostile manner. I am less impressed by images of well-choreographed meetings between foreign dignitaries and happily smiling refugees than by the strong anecdotal evidence, for example, of large numbers of young Syrian refugee women being forced into prostitution (or sold into sex slavery–like marriages) in order to support their families. Allowing such a human tragedy to flourish is a crime that is within the power of the world community, and particularly within the power of the Arab and Muslim “brothers” of these Syrians, to address.
Enough of the high-powered but ultimately unproductive “Syrian crisis”–themed meetings, conferences, and media events involving Arab and other world leaders. Now it is time to urge those politicians who loudly claim to care so much about the tragedy in Syria to do something that is within their power to do, instead of talking endlessly of doing the practically impossible.
Ali al Shihabi is a writer on Middle Eastern politics. He is a Saudi citizen who is a graduate of Harvard and Princeton and the founder of an investment bank. He is also the author of the book "Arabian War Games.” Find him on Twitter: @alishihabi