The swift takeover by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) of parts of northern Iraq and Syria has drawn Western attention back to Syria’s devastating civil war. The grisly beheading of American journalist James Foley seems to have fed the once-declining Western appetite for war, as the Obama administration has approved surveillance flights over Syria in a move that is apparently “a significant step toward direct American military action.”
Syria is witnessing a horror of unimaginable proportions. The United Nations recently released, for the first time in many months, a new estimate of the number of Syrians who have died in a war against a domestic uprising that began more than three years ago. Just over a year ago, the U.N. estimated that 93,000 had been killed. Now it says the death toll is at least 191,000. This new figure covers the conflict from its start in March 2011 to April of this year and is acknowledged to be a gross underestimate.
Although it is not known how many of the dead are civilians versus armed combatants, about 85 percent are male. Among the dead are thousands of minors. U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Navi Pillay said in a statement Friday that “the killers, destroyers and torturers in Syria have been empowered and emboldened by the international paralysis.” She strongly condemned the killings, calling them “scandalous” and a “wholly avoidable human catastrophe.”
The number of dead in Syria is indeed scandalous. What began as a hopeful uprising among the Arab Spring movements devolved into an intractable conflict as President Bashar Assad dug his heels in deeper, emboldened by regional and international support. Syrians living outside their country have watched the conflict with a sense of numb despair as media attention waxes and wanes. Ramah Kudaimi is a Syrian-American activist based in Washington, D.C. In an interview Monday on Uprising, she told me, “Because the government still has so much control, and refuses to let in outside observers to see what’s happening, we’ll never actually get specifics about what those numbers mean.” But, she added, “Whether they are rebels, whether they are army [troops], whether they are children, this is a very sad statistic that we need to be horrified by.”
To begin to tackle the problem of Syria, what matters more than who exactly is being killed is who is doing the killing. Pillay’s description of “serious allegations that war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed time and time again with total impunity” did not single out any one party. As we have seen in other conflicts, international bodies tend to equate vastly different scales of impunity, claiming that all sides share blame. But Kudaimi did not hesitate, telling me, “it is definitely the Assad regime” that is responsible. The government “has bombs, missiles, chemical weapons,” she said. “There is no way that anyone is to blame other than the Assad regime.”
Kudaimi painted a brief picture of how things have played out since March 2011, saying, “The Syrian people rose up, demanded basic freedoms, dignity, justice. And they were met with gunfire, they were met with bombs, they were met with chemical weapons.
“This needs to be very clear for anyone doing analysis,” she continued. “I’m not saying there are not rebel groups that might also be committing crimes. They also need to be prosecuted but at the end of the day it is the regime that is responsible because it has refused to give up any power.”
Given that the U.S. appears likely to jump into the middle of the war based on the emergence of ISIS, the question of how the militant Sunni group originated within the context of the Syrian conflict is crucial. ISIS has allegedly committed unconscionable crimes and proudly shared videos of those crimes with the world. Kudaimi remarked wryly, “It’s entertaining when we hear U.S. officials talking about going in to stop ISIS without considering that the roots of this group come from the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The roots of this group come from the extremist thinking that the Saudi regime exports all across the region.” Indeed, the sectarianism between Sunnis and Shiites, triumphantly fostered by the U.S.’ post-invasion policy inside Iraq, has been cited by many commentators including this one.
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Although the U.S. is now considering expanding its air operation against ISIS from Iraq into Syria, it was not too long ago that officials were considering an operation against ISIS’ sworn enemy, Assad. It appears that from the Obama administration’s perspective, the enemy of its enemy is, well, its enemy. To launch airstrikes against ISIS could have the perverse effect of strengthening Assad, unless of course he can be recast as a friend, as this New York Times debate Friday provocatively asks, posing the question, “Should the U.S. Work With Assad to Fight ISIS?” If Assad finds himself on the same side as America against ISIS, our troops and tax dollars will boost a regime that has been linked to some of the worst bloodletting in years.
It is important to delineate between ISIS and the various other Syrian rebel groups fighting the Assad regime. Kudaimi noted, “It is interesting that people talk about the need for Muslims worldwide to condemn what ISIS is doing and to fight back against this radical ideology. Well, the people who are fighting ISIS are the Syrian rebel groups, some of whom are part of the loosely connected Free Syrian Army.” In fact, ISIS, the group of Syrian rebels and the Assad regime are really three distinct formations in a conflict that the U.S. appears likely to dive into.
The standard U.S. approach to any conflict is often via bombs, tanks and guns. This dearth of imagination is furthered by a military-industrial complex thirsty for battlegrounds. But if we want to stem the blood in a conflict spiraling out of control, we must examine the root causes of that conflict and ask what motivates the fighters, as well as where they get their weapons.
Assad’s motives are easy enough to decipher: He would like to remain in power in Syria for as long as possible, and his strongest international benefactor, Russia, protects him from U.N. Security Council actions, as well as supplies him with weapons.
ISIS on the other hand, derives its moral authority, according to Kudaimi, from the U.S.’ actions, among other sources. Kudaimi conjectured, “If you want to bring together people who are angry at U.S. foreign policy, this [threat of airstrikes] gives them the ammunition to do it.”
In terms of weapons and funding, there is less clarity. One source, according to Kudaimi, could be “rich people from different Gulf countries, the supposed allies of the U.S. such as Saudi, Qatar and Kuwait.” Other sources, according to a report Friday based on U.S. intelligence, could be ransom money from European governments to retrieve their kidnapped citizens, and even oil sales.
If the U.S. is really interested in solving the conflict in Syria, it must address the roots, such as motivations and funding, and examine its own responsibility in fueling the strife. A constructive approach would have to involve diplomatically engaging Syria’s benefactor, Russia, and that means staunching an alarming escalation of hostilities in Ukraine along with the U.S.’ European allies. The U.S. must also consider the recommendation by the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria to refer the crisis to the International Criminal Court instead of conducting airstrikes.
Unfortunately for Syrians, and for the rest of us, constructive diplomacy and military caution have rarely if ever driven U.S. policy. Still, we must demand a solution that rejects at the outset all forms of U.S. military belligerence. History tells us that only ever makes things worse.