While on a recent visit to Turkey’s border with Syria, I interviewed a few of the 1.5 million Syrian refugees who have fled the conflict into neighboring countries.
One man had watched as a TNT barrel dropped by regime forces sent shrapnel flying through his neighborhood. His wife, daughter and five grandsons were all killed in the attack.
“The regime does not differentiate between civilians and the Free Syria Army,” he told me, his eyes brimming with tears.
After a few minutes he added, “I want the world to come and see what's going on. I want everyone to know.”
Just over two years ago a peaceful revolution in Syria triggered a brutal crackdown by the Assad regime. Now, with the death count soaring past 100,000, and millions of people displaced, Syria’s tragedy is impossible to ignore.
Last week President Obama announced that the U.S. would begin arming Syrian rebel forces, citing the regime’s use of chemical weaponry against civilians.
On Wednesday rebel forces in Syria told The Telegraph that Russian-made “Konkurs” – anti-tank missiles – have already been supplied to rebel forces by a key U.S. ally in the region, Saudi Arabia. Officials said the missiles had already been put to use against the regime.
“We now have supplies from Saudi Arabia,” one rebel soldier stated. “We have been told more weapons are on their way, even higher-end missiles.”
But critics of the administration say this action is too little, too late.
“For a measure of the snail’s pace of President Barack Obama’s decision-making on Syria, look at two dates: Aug. 18, 2011, and June 14, 2013,” Bernd Debusmann wrote in The Daily Star on Thursday.
“One marks the first of several calls for President Bashar Assad to ‘step aside.’ The second is the date the Obama administration said it would begin shipping weapons to anti-Assad rebels. In the 666 days between those dates, the death toll from Syria’s bloodshed rose from around 2,000 to more than 93,000, according to United Nations figures.”
It’s hard to imagine the toll the conflict has taken on Syria in the course of the last two years. Of Syria’s population of just over 22 million, over 4 million are internally displaced. The grim humanitarian disaster has sent an estimated 1.5 million refugees flooding over Syria’s borders with Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.
And while revolution forces fight for freedom in Syria, they face not only Assad’s brutal regime but increasingly powerful Islamist sects -- Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, an al Qaeda offshoot, among them.
Debusmann says that earlier U.S. action might have prevented the splintering of Syria’s rebel forces.
“In August 2011, there was no sign of Al-Qaeda’s participation in the increasingly savage war,” he writes. “By June 2013, an al Qaeda affiliate, Nusra Front, had become the best equipped and most efficient of the dozens of groups fighting the Assad government, according to intelligence assessments.”
Obama’s ultimate decision to arm the rebels has been welcomed by some and sharply criticized by others. George Washington University's Marc Lynch, who occasionally advises the administration on Middle East foreign policy has called the decision to arm the rebels Obama’s “worst foreign policy decision since taking office.”
Lynch says that “Obama's move is likely meant as a way to ‘do something,’ and perhaps to give Secretary John Kerry something to work with diplomatically on the way to Geneva II, while deflecting pressure for more aggressive steps.”
He adds that the “dominant idea is that these arms will help to pressure Assad to the bargaining table, strengthen the ‘moderate’ groups within the opposition while marginalizing the jihadists in the rebellion's ranks, and assert stronger U.S. leadership over the international and regional proxy war.”
But is any of that realistic? Lynch calls it “magical thinking.”
On Tuesday, President Obama described more of what he hopes will happen in Syria, "The goals are a stable, non-sectarian, representative Syrian government that is addressing the needs of its people through political processes and peaceful processes,” he said.
“We're not taking sides in a religious war between Shi'a and Sunni. Really, what we're trying to do is take sides against extremists of all sorts and in favor of people who are in favor of moderation, tolerance, representative government, and over the long-term, stability and prosperity for the people of Syria.”
Kristin Wright is a columnist and contributing writer at ReligionToday.com, where she focuses on global human rights issues. Kristin has covered topics such as bride trafficking in North Korea, honor killings in Pakistan, and the persecution of members of minority faiths in Iran. She has visited with religious minorities in Pakistan, worked with children at risk in Mumbai's “Red Light” district, and interviewed individuals on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Kristin recently returned from Turkey and the Syrian border, where she covered the plight of refugees fleeing the conflict. She can be contacted at [email protected]
Publication date: June 20, 2013