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Pia Lopez: Focus on the humanitarian disaster in Syria

By Pia Lopez
Sacramento Bee

Sacramento, Calif.: The U.N. special envoy to Syria warned, “The situation in Syria is bad. Very, very bad.” He continued, “If, God forbid, this crisis continues for another year, it will not only kill 25,000. It will kill 100,000.”

That was December. Today, the civil war in Syria is a humanitarian disaster.

In 2½ years, 110,000 people have been killed. More than 2 million refugees have fled Syria. Some 4.25 million people have been displaced from their homes.

That is nearly one-third of Syria’s prewar population of 22.5 million.

Yet the U.N. Security Council has not acted, blocked by Russia and China. Nor has the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, with European countries divided. Nor the Arab League, whose 22 members also are divided.

Even after poison gas killed more than 1,400 people in the eastern suburbs of Damascus on Aug. 21, the international community remains paralyzed.

That atrocity has changed the debate in the United States, but with the prospect of acting largely alone — with support only from France, Turkey and Israel, and behind-the-scenes support from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

We are seeing a post-Iraq hangover.

World leaders who support intervention face extreme public skepticism about any claims of chemical weapons use after the Bush administration’s deliberate — or deluded — misinformation about Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction” to sell the Iraq invasion in 2003. That was a major factor in the British Parliament’s Aug. 30 vote not to support military action.

Equally damaging, Hussein used mustard gas and sarin against Iran in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War and against his own people in northern Iraq in 1988, killing 3,000 to 5,000 people. Though the State Department argued at the time that the United States should respond or lose credibility in our official opposition to chemical weapons, the Reagan administration balked and continued to provide support to Hussein.

That emboldened Hussein to further aggression. If we do nothing again, Syria’s Bashar Assad will use every weapon at his disposal to survive — and rogue regimes elsewhere will take comfort.

That past also makes it difficult for the United States to argue that Russia should drop its support for Assad — and gives cover to the Russians and Chinese who denounce U.S. condemnation of the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons for crossing “humanity’s red line” as hypocrisy.

Historian Keith David Watenpaugh, who directs the UC-Davis Human Rights Initiative, pointed out that civil wars tend to end in two ways: One side has a decisive victory (U.S. Civil War, 1861-65) or the sides reach a state of mental and moral exhaustion where the cost of continuing war is more than the cost of talking with the enemy (Lebanon, 1975-90).

Decisive victory either by the regime or the rebels is not going to happen in Syria. Observers note that the rebels control 60 percent to 70 percent of Syrian territory while the regime controls 60 percent to 70 percent of the population. Outside nations provide weapons and money to both sides. With momentum in the last couple of months shifting to the regime, President Barack Obama is asking Congress for authority to “degrade” the regime’s capabilities to change the balance, with the aim of bringing both sides to the negotiating table.

UCLA historian James Gelvin said that this strategy to “restore a stalemate” is an “extraordinarily cynical plan, prolonging the bloodbath deliberately.”

The idea that limited surgical strikes would force Assad and the rebels to the bargaining table Gelvin believes is a “harebrained scheme.”

A third way that civil wars end, Gelvin points out, is in failed states like Somalia, with both sides locked down into militia-controlled areas. Syria already has become a sectarian conflict, pitting the Sunni Arab majority against the ruling Alawite Shias.

Watenpaugh rightly observes that, “The president’s proposed course of action is not about protecting the lives of Syrians — in that way it isn’t a humanitarian intervention.” He believes the United States should reset its Syria policy around two principles — civilian protection, and relief for refugees and internally displaced persons.

Lebanon has 716,000 registered refugees from Syria — Jordan, 515,000; Turkey, 460,000; Iraq, 168,000; Egypt, 110,000. This, of course, is destabilizing these countries.

The best way to minimize the harm to the region, Watenpaugh believes, is to “mitigate the effects of the refugees on Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Egypt — it is also the humane thing to do.” He adds: “By helping Syrians we build a reservoir of good will for ourselves in the region that will benefit us. Trust me, the refugee camps are full of recruiters for jihadi groups like al-Qaida.”

A solution, he says, also should include “civilian safe zones” within Syria. Turkey supports the idea; it shouldn’t be difficult to win support from other neighboring nations with refugees.

A successful model would be “Operation Provide Comfort,” where the United States and allies established a civilian safe zone in northern Iraq after the first Gulf War. This, however, is not for the faint of heart. It requires major military intervention — a no-fly zone and boots on the ground, such as Arab League forces.

A strike to deter future chemical attacks certainly is morally and legally justified. Humanitarian relief for Syrians is a human responsibility. But let’s not pretend that Obama’s proposed limited surgical strike will bring about a negotiated settlement or save civilian lives.

Lopez is associate editor of the Sacramento Bee. She can be emailed at


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