Seeing Syria

Recently I returned from Jordan, one of the countries on the front line of the Syrian crisis.  I visited the massive Zaatari refugee camp, once again swelling to about 100,000 residents.  I also went to a remote, desert border crossing between Syria and Jordan, about 100 km from Iraq, where I talked to refugees just as they were finishing a risky journey and beginning a difficult new life. 

Most were from besieged areas within Syria – about 40 communities in Homs, Aleppo and the suburbs of Damascus that the Syrian regime is surrounding, cutting off from humanitarian aid and attempting to shell and bomb into submission.  The refugees talked of homes destroyed by barrel bombs – oil barrels, filled with fuel and metal shards, dropped from helicopters as terror weapons.  They also described hunger – being reduced to eating dogs and cats.  And all this was taking place during the recent failed peace negotiations in Geneva.

Syria is in the midst of a complex civil war, with atrocities on both sides.  But talking to the refugees made clear that one side in the civil war – the Assad regime – is using mass atrocities against civilians as a strategy. And, so far, it is working.  The regime, with strong support from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, has made recent gains.  The result is the largest number of displaced persons since Rwanda, and casualties that are nearly equal to the Bosnian war. 

These developments have serious regional and global implications.  Neighboring countries such as Jordan and Lebanon are being overwhelmed.  More than 20 percent of all people in Lebanon are now Syrian refugees – an influx of Sunnis that is shifting that nation’s volatile sectarian balance.  Tens of thousands of foreign jihadists – including perhaps 2,000 with European roots – have been drawn to the conflict.  A generation of Syrian children is out of school and vulnerable to radicalization.  Diseases such as polio have emerged within the country.  A Somalia-like future for Syria would be a massive strategic nightmare. 

 But these problems get relatively little attention and sympathy in America.  I talked to the representative of one humanitarian organization on the ground in Jordan who told me her charity had raised more money in three weeks for the disaster in the Philippines than it had raised in three years for Syrian refugees.  Donors in western countries just don’t seem interested.  Maybe it is the complexity of the situation.  Maybe Americans are just tired of the Middle East. 

This may be psychologically understandable, but it is still morally problematic.  The refugees I talked with – mainly women and children – had been purposely targeted in mass atrocities by their own government.  Many had lost relatives.  One man I talked with had seen a young son and daughter murdered.  The regime targets homes and clinics and bakeries and schools. 

This is more than a messy civil war.  The Assad regime is committing crimes against humanity.  And the victims deserve our attention, our sympathy and our help.

-Michael J. Gerson is a visiting fellow with the Center for Public Justice and a nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in the Washington Post. He is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).