Saving Syria before it's too late

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Last week, the World Health Organization reported outbreaks of Hepatitis A in Syria, particularly among the internally displaced. Doctors Without Borders stated that leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease, is endemic in and around Aleppo. Water and sanitation conditions throughout Syria have deteriorated, as public water is being rationed and sanitation conditions across the country have broken down. Fleeing civilians must struggle not only with harsh winter conditions, but also lack of proper medical care, overcrowded camps, and a critical shortage of medicine. More than half of Syria’s public hospitals have closed, with some overtaken by the Syrian regime and rebel opposition forces as torture centers and staging grounds. Ambulances have been impounded for use in combat. As doctors and medical staff flee the country, Syrian civilians are left in an increasingly fragile position that demands international attention beyond humanitarian aid.
 
President Obama has repeatedly issued statements hinting at deeper intervention in Syria following his re-election, but his administration has done little besides increase humanitarian and non-lethal aid. How beneficial are medical and food supplies if the country is engulfed in such violence that these supplies are unable to reach those in particularly volatile conflict zones? The cautious leadership of the U.S. has stalled for far too long, and the violence in Syria has now escalated to the level of genocide, defined by the Genocide Convention as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy…a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group such as: (a) killing members of the group; (b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) imposing measure intended to prevent births within the group; and (e) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” The Syrian regime and opposition forces are both guilty of at least three (a, b, and c) of these violations.


The U.S. is well aware that the international community looks to it for the green light in intervention in Syria. Political debates about the regime’s ties to Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah in Lebanon, as well as the threat of chemical warfare and warnings of a regional war were the U.S. to take action, have stymied U.S. intervention in Syria. The crisis in Syria has reached a point where it can only deteriorate: without further intervention, the sectarian conflict will spill across borders and conditions of refugee camps will deteriorate. Chemical weapons could fall into the hands of Islamist extremists or Hezbollah. Cities and villages across Syria are collapsing as the recently formed National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces has proven to be largely ineffective. Neighborhood shellings occur on a daily basis, and the exodus of police forces and medical staff have left civilians increasingly vulnerable.
 
Now more than ever, the Obama administration needs to place Syria at the top of its agenda. In yesterday’s State of the Union address, President Obama declared that “[the United States] has a huge stake in the outcome [of Syria]…we will support policies that lead to strong and stable democracies and open markets, because tyranny is no match for liberty.” The problem is, President Obama, tyranny in Syria by the Assad regime has proven – for two years – to be a match for liberty. Continued cautious leadership and failure by the U.S. to effectively intervene may very well lead to policymakers’ worst fears: threats of Al Qaeda or other extremists coming to power, a regional war, and tens of thousands more lives lost at the hands of delayed intervention.  
Ko is a graduate student at American University's School of International Service. She served in the Peace Corps in Jordan from 2006-2008 and is currently studying international human rights.