As if we needed yet another reminder of the horror that has befallen the Syrian people, the U.N. refugee agency has just announced a new number that we should not allow to pass without a moment of collective introspection.
According to the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, the number of Syrians who have fled their country to seek refuge in other lands has now reached 4 million people. It is impossible to comprehend the magnitude of suffering that the number conveys. Four million lives. Four million people have left behind everything they knew and crossed the borders to save their lives. Another 7.6 million people have become displaced within Syria.
UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres says this is the biggest refugee population from a single conflict in a generation; the worst refugee crisis in 25 years.
I say it is a collective failure of the international community that should prompt us to take action. To be clear, I’m not calling for American soldiers to rush into Syria. But American policies in the region need to change.
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World powers have allowed the slaughter in Syria to continue unabated for four years. “It’s not our problem” is the overwhelming attitude in most of the world. “Not much we can do” is a common excuse. “No good options” is the preferred cop-out among decision makers. All of the above are false, but the help exonerate our consciences, or at least provide us and our leaders some palliative justification for standing back while a country crushes itself to death.
In the meantime, the repercussions of failing to take a more pro-active approach continue to mount. The death toll is rising, and an entire generation is growing up in the midst of toxic hatred, ensuring that the consequences of this disaster will not end when the shooting stops.
Inside Syria the death toll now probably exceeds 300,000, mostly civilians, including thousands of children. In refugee camps around the world the numbers are exploding and resources are running short.
Amnesty International says that today we have the highest number of refugees and internally displaced people since the end of World War II. This is no ordinary time.
In the face of this calamity, the international community that, like it or not, is led by the United States, has performed dismally.
The United States only started taking some action when American citizens were put on camera and decapitated by ISIS. By then Washington had allowed the situation to become much worse. Instead of helping the moderate pro-democracy opposition, which demanded an end to the dictatorship of Syrian President Bashar Assad, the United States stood back, allowing extremist groups — with generous support from wealthy donors — to capture the imagination of young Syrians yearning to break the shackles of the Assad dictatorship.
The excuse was that helping the opposition would mean helping the extremists.
It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. By allowing the moderates to fall behind in resources and capabilities, only the extremists in the opposition scored gains against Assad. The moderates fell behind and faded.
Even now, as the United States is trying to put together a fighting force against ISIS, it is failing miserably. Only 60 people have signed up for U.S. training to fight in Syria.
That’s because the United States demands that they fight only ISIS and not Assad, and because they don’t trust American support.
Word in the Middle East is that the United States has been too interested in making a deal with Iran to do anything that could upset Tehran. They believe Washington has been reluctant to do anything that could threaten the survival of Iran’s best friend, Bashar al-Assad, even as he drops barrel bombs and uses chemical weapons to kill civilians.
The United States needs to allow those it supports to fight against Assad, not just against ISIS.
The war in Syria is spreading. It is metastasizing rapidly. Not only has it moved into Iraq, but it is sending ripples across the entire Middle East and all the way around the globe. Syria’s carnage is destabilizing the ethnic balance in Lebanon. It is creating refugee crises in Europe. It is putting America on alert against terrorism.
Syria is the world’s problem because as human beings we cannot, should not, allow that kind of suffering to occur without trying, and trying hard, to make it stop. It is our problem because it is destabilizing the world. It is our problem because the consequences of inaction are mounting and will continue for many years.
If hundreds of thousands dead, millions of refugees and ever-spreading ideological poisons don’t make us reconsider failed policies, what will?