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Originally published November 16, 2012 at 4:42 PM | Page modified November 16, 2012 at 4:42 PM

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The failure of a hands-off approach to Syria’s torment

There are dangers with greater U.S. involvement in Syria, writes Nicholas D. Kristof, but Western passivity has accelerated all that Washington fears: chaos, regional instability, sectarianism and growing influence of Islamic militants.

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BAB AL-SALAM, Syria – It was cold and drizzling as yet another family made homeless by war arrived in this town in northern Syria to start a new life in a tent.

Khadija al-Ali seemed to be trying not to cry as she explained how in the space of a week she had gone from middle-class housewife to homeless single mother.

Ali had lived a comfortable life in the northern city of Aleppo with her husband, a tailor, and their three children, ages 6, 3 and 1. Then, a week ago, a Syrian government jet dropped a bomb that destroyed the family house, but no one was home and the family members thanked God that they were safe.

A couple of days later, Ali’s husband disappeared in Aleppo. Maybe he was arrested at a checkpoint, or hit by a bomb, or targeted by the snipers now common in the city. One Aleppo resident told me about a friend who had been shot by a sniper in the shoulder and leg. It was too dangerous to pull him to safety, and he died on the street two days later.

“I just don’t know what happened,” Ali told me blankly, while her cousin (who confirmed the story) suggested that the husband is probably dead.

An aid worker from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent arrived with loaves of bread for the family, which the children ate hungrily. When pieces fell into the mud, they picked them up and brushed them off. And blankets are even harder to come by than food.

“I’m afraid my kids will die in this cold weather,” she fretted.

Multiply Ali by more than a million and you get the scale of Syria’s torment. Already, nearly 40,000 people have been killed in the civil war, and some 2.5 million are displaced from their homes.

President Barack Obama and other world leaders have avoided intervening in Syria for fear of destabilizing the region and empowering Islamic fundamentalists. The West is also nervous of the rebel Free Syrian Army, which includes extremist elements and has committed atrocities itself.

The Western concerns are legitimate, and plenty of Syrians have mixed feelings about the Free Syrian Army. Some fighters engage in looting or kidnapping, and many are poorly trained and unprofessional. (The establishment of a new umbrella coalition of the Syrian opposition, immediately recognized by France, may help a bit.)

My take is that rural Syrians are generally supportive of the Free Syrian Army, while some city dwellers resent it as an armed mob that irresponsibly moves into neighborhoods knowing that the result will be government bombs that will devastate those streets.

It’s also true that Islamic militants and foreign fighters are playing an increasing, but still tiny, role in the combat. Some of that is real, and some is Kabuki: Groups of fighters have realized that the best way to get weapons is to grow beards, quote from the Quran and troll for support in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

A secular pro-Western businessman who lost his 18-year-old son to a bomb said he didn’t agree with the militants, but he still welcomed them. “They have the humanity to help,” he said, contrasting their assistance with Western indifference.

An imam, a bit distracted because he was preparing to smuggle a rebel flag into Aleppo, at the risk of execution, put it this way: “The Americans are with the Syrians, but they just want to talk.”

There are dangers with greater involvement, and Syria is a more difficult arena in which to intervene than Libya was, but let’s acknowledge that the existing hands-off approach has failed. Western passivity has backfired and accelerated all that Washington fears: chaos, regional instability, sectarianism and growing influence of Islamic militants.

The United States certainly shouldn’t send boots on the ground. But there are steps we can take to save lives, hasten an end to the war, reduce the risks to the region and protect American interests as well.

A sensible menu includes a NATO-backed no-fly zone over parts of northern Syria, transfers of weapons and ammunition (though not anti-aircraft weapons) to the Free Syrian Army, training and intelligence support, and cooperation with rebels to secure chemical weapons.

“The government kills us every day, and nobody cares about us,” said Aisha Muhammad, who doesn’t know her age but looked to be in her 70s. She said that a government sniper had shot one of her two sons, costing him his arm, and that the other had been arrested five months ago and not heard from since.

Asked if he is still alive, she teared up and gulped: “I don’t know.” Her entire village has been destroyed, and she is now living out her old age alone, in a soggy, chilly tent. For her and other homeless Syrians, there’s only one certainty: winter will make the coming months even more wretched.

© 2012, New York Times News Service

Nicholas D. Kristof is a regular columnist for The New York Times.


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