Forsaken Syria

Read Time:5 Minute, 15 Second – In this year of ubiquitous commemorations, the centennial of Jan Karski’s
birth has been largely overlooked. And


yet Karski’s legacy is more important than
ever – nowhere more so than in Syria. As the Geneva II peace process slogs along –
leaving cadavers and atrocities to pile up – Karski’s dedication to bringing the
plight of Poland’s Jews to the world’s attention during World War II, despite the
inertia of governments and publics, embodies exactly what Syria desperately needs.

In 1942, Karski, a Polish-born diplomat, traveled to the United Kingdom to report on
what came to be called the Holocaust. The next year, he embarked on a mission to the
United States to brief President Franklin D. Roosevelt and other dignitaries on the
horrors that he had witnessed. In both cases, he was met with skepticism and apathy.
Indeed, it was only toward the end of the war that action was taken to stop the

Although the Holocaust is a category of persecution sui generis, one cannot avoid
thinking of Karski in light of the international community’s approach to Syria
today. Expectations for the Geneva talks are so low that trivial matters – such as
the fact that President Bashar al-Assad’s negotiators and the opposition are sitting
together in the same room (though not at the same table) – are being hailed as

Even the agreement to allow women and children to leave blockaded areas of the city
of Homs – an anti-Assad stronghold – fell far short of international mediators’
vision (and even this achievement seems to be in doubt). Instead of allowing a
United Nations aid convoy to bring humanitarian aid to the area, the government
agreed to release women and children on an as-yet-uncertain timeline, while men can
leave only after their names had been cleared, raising fears of arrest. Meanwhile,
amid plodding deliberations of incremental steps that are clearly inadequate,
Syrians are being displaced, wounded, tortured, and killed in droves.

By any measure, the level of suffering in Syria is shocking. Although figures do not
convey the cruelty by all sides, it has become de rigeur to cite the numbers: more
than 100,000 dead, 2.3 million refugees, and four million people internally

But a year ago, the figures were already dire: 60,000 dead, 700,000 international
refugees, and two million internally displaced. If there were a threshold of misery
that would cause the world to say, “Enough is enough,” it surely would have been
crossed by now.

The ugly truth is that the world’s response to this crisis has been shaped by
geopolitical interests, not the need to put an end to appalling human suffering.
Indeed, it is no secret that the conflict serves as a proxy for larger struggles –
between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the US and Iran, Russia and
the US, Shia and Sunni Muslims, and moderates and extremists – and that resolving it
will require significant effort on all of these fronts.

From an American perspective, Syria is not strategically critical. President Barack
Obama’s administration has maintained an intensely inward-looking focus, reinforced
by a public wary of foreign engagements. Nothing short of a drastic change in the
conflict’s nature that threatened America’s core interests would lead to direct US

Guilt, after all, is a poor motivator for international action. Even the UK and
France – the only two countries that were not shy about threatening military action
against Assad’s regime – got cold feet when confronted with the possibility of going
it alone.

Instead, the world is responding to graphic images of unspeakable brutality –
torture by the regime or executions carried out by the opposition – with sterile
shows of outrage. The stream of statements, half-measures, and clumsy initiatives
has done little to improve the situation – and, in some instances, has made things

Consider Obama’s call, backed by no action, for Assad to “step aside,” and his
repeated promises, dating to early 2012, to provide non-lethal aid to the Syrian
opposition – promises that were finally fulfilled late last year, and then only
temporarily. This gap between rhetoric and action left a vacuum; Saudi Arabia,
Qatar, and private donors subsequently filled it by channeling support to extremist
elements of the opposition, strengthening their hand at the expense of those being
called moderates.

But the most infamous example of this policy paralysis was Obama’s 2012 declaration
that the use of chemical weapons was the “red line” beyond which the US would be
forced to intervene. His ultimate failure to follow through on his proclamation
emboldened and, in a way, re-legitimized Assad.

It remains to be seen whether Geneva II will follow this pattern. The price of the
talks has already been high, with all sides having ramped up violence to strengthen
their respective positions ahead of the negotiations. This is to say nothing of the
fiasco surrounding the withdrawn invitation to Iran, whose buy-in will be essential
for any resolution.

In any case, the incremental nature of the talks belies the situation’s urgency.
Amid the current focus on regime change, a transitional government, and negotiating
delegations, there is a real danger that the desperate humanitarian situation will
be overlooked.

Here, citizens have a critical role to play. But, like their leaders, publics
everywhere have been reticent to act. Indeed, opinion polls show that, despite
near-universal awareness of the situation in Syria, there is very little public
support for intervention. But handwringing will not help; we – individuals – must
accept real responsibility for ending the tragedy and press our leaders to act.

It has been more than 70 years since Karski presented his report to the world. In
that time, we have created the United Nations, adopted the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights, and discussed endlessly governments’ “responsibility to protect” their
citizens. Yet, watching the Syrian tragedy develop, one might conclude that nothing
has changed. How many times must we say, “Never again”?

Ana Palacio, a former Spanish foreign minister and former Senior Vice President
of the World Bank, is a member of the Spanish Council of State and a visiting
lecturer at Georgetown University.

Project Syndicate

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