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The seven years of Syria’s crisis has cost half a million lives, displaced more than 5 million refugees and reordered the geopolitics of the Middle East. But the worst may be yet to come. Western policymakers cannot be allowed to turn the other way and need to show their mettle when the U.N. Security Council meets on Syria this month.
In June, President Bashar al-Assad’s forces stormed the southwestern region of Syria, where the uprising began. Within weeks, they took control of the border crossings with Jordan that had been used by aid agencies to supply cross-border aid to hundreds of thousands of Syrians in desperate need. My organization, the International Rescue Committee, with its network of Syrian partner organizations, was the largest health-care provider in southern Syria, supporting more than a quarter of a million Syrians.
Now we are shut out, with no access to those people in need. And we don’t know the fate of those we were serving. The assurances from the Syrian government inspire little confidence in light of the conditions in other areas previously retaken by the regime (like Ghouta, east of Damascus). Even humanitarian partners authorized to work inside Syria have yet to receive permission from the Assad government to deliver much-needed aid into many areas newly under government control.
Humanitarian aid has been blocked, but the needs are likely growing, given the brutality of the offensive to retake Daraa, which drove hundreds of thousands of Syrians from their homes in just a matter of days. These populations are highly vulnerable to retaliation attacks as Assad’s government reasserts its control, which could include forced military conscription, denial of humanitarian aid, and sexual abuses against women and young girls.
With aid agencies banished and cross-border humanitarian access now lost, the U.N. Security Council should demand unfettered humanitarian access to the south, to monitor the protection of Syrian civilians and the fair distribution of aid. Any crimes committed must be recorded, with full accountability for perpetrators under international law. And both humanitarian workers and recipients of humanitarian aid, who lived for years under opposition control, must not face any consequences now that they live under government control.
Equal attention must also now turn to the northwest of Syria around Idlib. This is where there is the greatest risk of a new humanitarian disaster. Armed opposition groups from elsewhere in the country have been deported there under so-called reconciliation agreements and are preparing for a last stand against the Assad regime. Standing between rebels and the regime are 2.6 million civilians, half of whom have already been displaced at least once by fighting. One million seven hundred thousand people already need humanitarian aid to survive. Almost 70,000 have fled from the horrors of Eastern Ghouta, where they had been living under siege for up to five years.
Russia has made itself a central player in the Syrian war. At the end of July, it met with Turkey and Iran in Sochi, Russia, to discuss the prospects in Idlib. But one-off deals to plan military offensives, not protect civilians, are dangerous. They have excluded the United Nations and sidelined its peace-making process.
The Security Council needs to reassert itself. It is vital that the Western countries that are permanent members of the council — the United States, France and Britain (P3) — use their voice and influence to protect civilians in northwest Syria. The P3 must demand, first, that the parties involved should suspend any planned attacks and revitalize U.N.-led peace talks. De-escalation areas and reconciliation agreements have not protected Syrians or humanitarian law — the two biggest victims of this long and lawless war.
Second, the Turkish military’s 12 observation posts in Idlib should be opened to U.N. officials to deter any abuses of international humanitarian law. Turkey should allow full humanitarian access to northwest Syria across its border.
Third, there must also be a backstop guarantee that, in the case of any conflict, there must be safe routes and an open border into Turkey for civilians running for their lives.
Assad and the Russian government want to play by their own rules to win the war and then get the West to pay for rebuilding Syria. They need to be disabused of this illusion.
Critically, it must be made clear that without a comprehensive, genuine and inclusive political transition as a product of negotiations in Geneva, and guarantees for Syrians’ safety now, Western funding for reconstruction aid for a post-conflict Syria remains off the table.
There is leverage in Western money but also in Western presence. The northeast of the country is currently under Kurdish control, with 2,000 U.S. troops providing an insurance policy against attacks against civilians by the Assad regime. President Trump should understand this leverage, too — and not speculate, as he did recently, about a withdrawal.
Syrians have paid the price for their president’s impunity. Assad is in a stronger position now than he has been in years. Someone needs to stand up for the lesson that winning the war is not the same as winning the peace.