A resolution to this two-and-a-half-year-old war remains as elusive as ever. Even if Obama’s commendable effort to deter the Assad regime from using chemical weapons succeeds, he will still have the ability to slaughter people with conventional weapons. More than 100,000 people have died, each side has committed atrocities, and the refugee crisis alone is a humanitarian catastrophe. According to the U.N, the number of refugees has surpassed 2 million, more than half of whom are children, and some 7 million people have been displaced, a third of the country’s population. Adjusted for population size, that’s equivalent to 100 million Americans.
In this context, talk of peace is callous at best, and dangerous at worst, because it could foster indifference among Americans and their political leaders. There’s already insufficient political will in Washington to produce a response commensurate with the scale of the problem. To date, the Obama administration’s Syria strategy has consisted primarily of diplomacy targeting the use of chemical weapons and the risky tactic of arming the rebels. It should do more to try to alleviate the suffering and bring about a resolution to this conflict:
Tighten sanctions. The United States and the European Union already have in place stiff financial sanctions against Syria. But banks based in Russia and other countries—banks that also borrow in Western capital markets—are circumventing these restrictions on lending to or conducting financial transfers on behalf of the Syrian Central Bank and other Syrian entities. To close these loopholes and increase pressure on the Assad regime, the U.S. Treasury Department should announce that any international banks that are still doing business with the regime will no longer be eligible for corresponding privileges in the United States.
Expand Diplomacy. The Obama Administration should immediately build on the agreement with Russia over chemical weapons to pursue broader talks aimed at a cease fire and political resolution, and it should consider bringing Iran into the negotiations. The Los Angeles Times reports the Obama Administration and Iran’s new more moderate leadership are discussing Syria behind the scenes and working toward direct talks. The inclusion of Iran in the peace process could help produce a breakthrough.
Address the refugee crisis. The responsibility of hosting Syria’s refugee is being shouldered mainly by Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon. The United States, historically a global leader in refugee protection, should continue to provide humanitarian aid (it has provided $818 million so far) and press other countries, including those backing Assad, to do the same. The U.N. has received only 43 percent of the almost $3 billion it needs for Syrian refugees this year. Russia has given only 10 million; China has given nothing. At the same time, the United States, which resettled only 85 Syrian refugees between October 2010 and July 2013, must do a better job of leading by example. In August, the U.S. State Department announced that it would resettle about 2,000 Syrian refugees, but the need is clearly greater.
These steps could help protect the human rights of Syrian civilians—including the war’s refugees—and facilitate a political resolution. They would also represent an appropriate degree of commitment from the United States. Americans and our government shouldn’t move on from this crisis until peace—genuine peace—has prevailed.
Massimino is president and CEO of Human Rights First.