2014, like the three years preceding it, was a year of horror, terror, and hardship for millions of Syrians, the overwhelming majority of whom—Arab and Kurdish, Sunni, Alawite, Christian, Druze, Ismaili, and Shia—were innocent victims of heartless, criminal violence: most, though not all, orchestrated by Bashar al-Assad and his clan-based regime. Americans, taking their lead from political leaders largely unmoved by mass murder and terror, overwhelmingly saw Syria’s agony as someone else’s problem: surely something of which the United States should steer clear. Iran and Russia saw their client’s criminality as a means to national ends: hegemony in the case of Iran, cutting Washington down to size by making President Barack Obama eat his “Assad should step aside” words in the case of Russia’s Putin. Lost in all of this—physically and conceptually—are millions of frightened, hungry, cold, and hopeless people: human beings entitled to protection. US indifference is shameful. It must not stand in 2015.
Recently I was asked if, in principle, I could support a scenario where Bashar al-Assad and his regime stay in power indefinitely in return for an end to the suffering: no more barrel bombs, starvation sieges, political prisoners, torture, and sexual abuse: no more ever. The answer—without hesitation—was “yes,” both in principle and in practice. If this leopard actually changes his spots by ending the terror, lifting the sieges, emptying his dungeons, and allowing people to return to what is left of their homes without molestation, I would support continued US recognition of him as the President of the Syrian Arab Republic and termination of all aid—meager and meaningless as it may be—to armed opponents of the regime.
Would Bashar al-Assad—a person who has yet to utter the first word of regret about what has happened to his country and his people since March 2011—be willing to take such steps? The view here is that he lacks the moral character to do so: that he considers those on the receiving end of concentrated, indiscriminate firepower and medieval torture devices to be subhuman and fully deserving of pain and death. Yet, this is no more than a personal opinion.
Were Assad to undergo an epiphany—or a mere recalculation—and decide to act with decency and compassion (albeit in return for assured retention of power) would he be able to take such steps? Here there is real doubt. That which the ruling family has unleashed in terms of shabiha criminality and decentralized barbarity (much of it sectarian in nature) cannot now be easily muzzled and returned to the kennel. There is no shortage of local actors supporting the regime because of the cover it provides for unlimited personal impunity. These actors might not respond positively to a cease-and-desist order. Assad might not be able to oblige them to stop. This is the “stability” some officials in the Obama administration say would be missed if the Assad regime were to disappear too quickly.
That regime is not about to disappear. Barring accidents or a fundamental change of Obama administration policy, Bashar al-Assad will be heading a decentralized “Murder Inc.” for all of 2015 and perhaps beyond. Iran and Russia are dedicated to his survival and—given those in charge in Tehran and Moscow—utterly indifferent to the suffering of Syrians. Official US indifference is rooted in the view that the exercise of US military power to save lives is inefficacious when it extends beyond very limited operations directed against thoroughly over-matched adversaries. Official Iranian and Russian indifference to millions of homeless, hungry, freezing, and terrified Syrians is something else entirely: appreciation for the fact that terror—including mass murder—can be an effective tool in securing political interests.
Some administration officials have confided their view that Syria is simply too problematic to be addressed definitively by the United States (beyond bombing the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant—ISIL or ISIS). Some believe that the aim should be to contain the crisis and hand it off, essentially no worse than it is now, to whomever inherits the presidency in January 2017. Surely, this adds a new and sanguinary dimension to the expression “passing the buck.” Have its adherents considered the human cost? As a practical matter, leaving aside personal ethical beliefs about the admissibility of terror, do they care any more about that cost than their Iranian and Russian counterparts?
How and why do officials believe that a Syria where the Assad system—the regime and all it has unleashed—stays in place will produce stasis, a mere freezing for 24 months of the humanitarian abomination for which the regime is mainly responsible? As David Miliband (CEO of the International Rescue Committee) and others recently reported in The Guardian, “Syria’s steady descent into a human rights black hole continues. The obligations enshrined in international law hold no purchase in the country; six times as many schools were attacked over the 30 days to 16 November as the month before. Bombs and shells rain down on terrified civilians sheltering in wedding halls or awaiting treatment in hospitals. Water and power supplies are routinely cut. Murder, torture and sexual violence are part of daily life.”
How exactly does the administration propose to hold steady with 12.2 million Syrians requiring basic (and in some cases emergency) humanitarian assistance with Assad at the helm? As Miliband observed, “More than half of those in need have been driven from their homes, and a quarter of a million people in the suburbs of Aleppo and Damascus remain besieged, trapped in the ruins of what used to be their houses.” How much of Syria’s descent into hell has been contained by administration policies over the past two years?
There is only one scenario that could possibly justify the United States declining to confront Assad directly over these unspeakable outrages, one in which the outrages stop. Why is it beyond the wit and will of the world’s greatest power to stop Assad’s helicopters from unloading barrel bombs on residential neighborhoods, where schools, bakeries, clinics, and apartment buildings are pulverized with fine indifference? Why does this slaughter matter so little to officials who, in terms of their personal values, have nothing whatsoever in common with Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, or Iran’s Supreme Leader?
So yes: as far as I am concerned Bashar al-Assad can stay in his palace and his cousins can take the customary percentage of reconstruction aid—much of which should come from Iran and Russia—as long as the regime’s war crimes and crimes against humanity end. Yet how likely is it that violent criminality would be brought to a halt voluntarily? Indeed, how likely would it be to stop in the wake of an outright regime military victory over nationalist foes, one that would enable regime operatives and the gangs they have empowered to pick through the ruins for victims at their leisure?
2015 should be the Year of the Syrian People. All of them: Alawites sacrificing their sons for the sake of a corrupt clan; Christians wondering if the land where Paul was selected to propagate the faith can remain their home; Sunni Arabs and others from all communities who had the courage to stand up to a regime that wanted to take their dignity after having stolen everything else. For the exponential growth of Syrian suffering to slow and stop in 2015 the United States will have to decide that mass murder matters, and that the phrase “Never Again” applies to Syria. If the political survival of Bashar al-Assad can be reconciled with “Never Again,” so be it. But US indifference and inaction in the face of an ongoing humanitarian abomination about which something can be done can never be squared with US values or a presidential legacy reflecting honor on its subject.
Frederic C. Hof is a resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.