March 18, 2014

Putin’s help on Syria was a fantasy

It’s time to make sure Syrian opposition groups get the arms they need.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine should finally end the administration’s fantasy that Moscow will help stop the war in Syria.

And it ought to force the White House to forge a new strategy to deal with the most shocking humanitarian crisis of the century, which is spilling over from Syria to all of its neighbors.

U.S. officials have insisted for three years that there was no military solution in Syria; they clung to delusions that Russia would convince Bashar al-Assad to make way for a transitional government and free elections.

But those hopes reached a dead end at failed Geneva peace talks, where the Russians refused to pressure the Syrian regime.

Just as Vladimir Putin used military force in Ukraine to try to restore an ally to power, the Russian leader has armed and encouraged Assad to retain power at any human cost.

Assad’s key weapon is his willingness to commit the most brutal war crimes. That means besieging whole towns, starving residents, targeting civilians with mass bombing of residential areas, and poison gas.

His planes have deliberately destroyed schools and hospitals; his militias try to kill doctors in rebel-held areas.

Assad’s goal is to depopulate cities and towns held by rebels and drive their populations into neighboring countries, or displace them within Syria. The regime hopes this strategy will force the opposition to quit, and will pressure Arab neighbors to end support for the rebels.

When it comes to war crimes, there are no holds barred.

This week the Syrian war is entering its fourth year, and the human toll continues to mount.

Nearly half the Syrian population, at least 9.3 million people, are either refugees abroad or in desperate straits within their own country.

Whole cities have been largely reduced to rubble by regime bombers. More than 130,000 Syrians have died.

In what was once a middle-class country, the medical system has collapsed, leading to an increase in the deaths of newborns and a polio epidemic.

But Bashar bombs on, driving at least 2.3 million Syrians (and perhaps twice that many) to quit Syria.

In Lebanon, with its population of just over 4 million, at least one million Syrian refugees have sought shelter. It’s as if the entire population of Germany had washed up on U.S. shores as refugees.

While the United States has taken the lead in Syrian humanitarian aid, with $1.7 billion, money alone can’t address this huge crisis.

On Friday, a bipartisan group of 19 senators, including Robert Casey (D-Pa.), called for President Obama to submit a “new humanitarian strategy.”

“It’s important that there be a more aggressive approach,” Casey said, because “there are still problems with aid delivery.”

Specifically, Casey suggested it was time to ensure that well-vetted opposition groups get the weapons they need to prevent government bombing and shelling of civilians, and to guarantee that aid reaches the needy.

Without such aid, Assad will keep bombing Syrian civilians, backed by Moscow and Tehran.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.


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