Biden’s silence on Syria must end
By ZAHER SAHLOUL | Special to the Chicago Tribune | Published: March 18, 2021
A Twitter campaign, #SpeakToSyrians, has been started to mark the 10th anniversary of the Syrian crisis and urge President Joe Biden to say something about the worst humanitarian crisis in our lifetime. Started by a group of diverse American activists, community organizers, faith leaders, artists, reporters, academics and even Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., are tweeting videos speaking to Biden and asking him to do what people expect him to do.
Wendy Pearlman, a teaching professor in the political science department at Northwestern University and author of one of the hundreds of books written about the Syrian crisis in the past 10 years, urged Biden to “speak to Syrians, stand with their courageous struggle for freedom, and take meaningful steps to end atrocities in Syria and demand accountability.”
So far, it looks that the crisis that has created untold atrocities, included countless chemical weapons attacks, undermined medical neutrality, destabilized the European Union, fed into xenophobia and terrorism, and created the largest displacement of the population since World War II is not yet a priority of the new president. His two predecessors, and their policies, failed the Syrian people.
A recent report by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria warned that no single Syrian family has been left unscathed in the decadelong war in the country. In blunt language, the commission chair, Paulo Pinheiro, said the population of Syria had paid the price as the government unleashed “overwhelming” violence to quell dissent. Those in urban areas had endured aerial and artillery bombardments and chemical weapons attacks, along with sieges leading to starvation and restrictions on humanitarian aid.
Biden has yet to mention Syria in any public comments since his inauguration. He has not appointed a senior special envoy for Syria as his predecessor did. Iran, Yemen and Saudi Arabia dominate foreign policy in the Middle East. That is not fair to the half-million Syrians who have lost their lives and the 11 million who have been displaced for calling for freedom.
We might remember the Arab Spring, the peaceful demonstrations in Homs and Hama, the snipers, the barrel bombs, the red line, the Ghouta sarin gas massacre, the young Syrian boy wearing his red shirt and lying on the shores of the Aegean sea, the shell-shocked young boy in the back of the ambulance in Aleppo, the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees arriving into Lesvos Island in Greece, and more gas attacks in Khan Sheikhoun and Douma.
The American people have sympathized with the suffering of the Syrian people. They paid attention. They stood with Aleppo. They donated, prayed and cried. They demanded to resettle more Syrian refugees and demonstrated against the Muslim ban. But their sympathy did not translate into sensible policies nor the political will to end the crisis.
Yes, Biden has many challenges, domestic and international. The COVID-19 response and vaccination plan should be the No. 1 priority. Wealth and health disparities, immigration reforms, climate change and systemic racism should be tackled early. China, Russia and Iran are major challenges in foreign policy. Yemen, the Uyghur genocide and Myanmar are difficult to ignore. But that does not mean the Syrian crisis should be ignored. As we have witnessed over the past 10 years, if we turn away from Syria, we will pay a much higher price later.
Over the past decade, the U.S. has spent nearly $12 billion on humanitarian assistance to Syrians. The U.S. military intervened, not to save Syrian children from Bashar Assad’s barrel bombs but to attack Islamic State, a terrorist organization unleashed by Assad and a byproduct of the war on his citizens. The military appropriations for the Iraq and Syria war zone have been about $44 billion each year since 2011.
In addition to the millions of people who have been killed or displaced, the global economic cost of the decadelong Syrian war is more than $1.2 trillion, according to a new report by World Vision International. Even if the war ended today, there would be $1.4 trillion in additional costs from the war through 2035. The life expectancy of Syrian children has been reduced by 13 years.
Since March 2011, fully half of the Syrian population has been displaced, and 40% of them are children. The overall civilian death toll from this war is estimated to be close to 600,000 including 55,000 children.
I just returned from another medical mission to northwestern Syria. My organization, MedGlobal, with some support from Latter-day Saint Charities, built two large generators to provide oxygen to patients in two hospitals overwhelmed by COVID-19 and short of medical supplies. The medical situation is much better right now, but there are still 1.2 million civilians who live in more than a thousand camps close to the Turkish border.
I saw signs of resilience and normalcy for the first time. Students are going to schools and universities. New businesses and factories are opening. The streets are full of cars that are assembled in the city of Idlib. New restaurants are opening. I had dinner in a restaurant called Disney in Idlib. Children were playing in the attached playground. The restaurant had vintage cars on display. It was so different from my last visit a year ago, which was during a bombing campaign that targeted hospitals and schools and led to the displacement of 1.2 million people.
Turkey intervened at that time and halted the advances of the Syrian army, which would have caused another wave of refugees.
I met with Dr. Nosaima in a busy hospital in the northwest of Idlib. She ran a successful COVID-19 program and was appreciative of the help that the American people are sending. She dreams of peace and security. She expects the new Biden administration to lead the international community and end the crisis. She just wants to live, raise her children and plan for a future for her family. She does not want to be displaced anymore.
In the same hospital, I saw a 2-year-old child with severe malnutrition. Her pediatrician was explaining a treatment plan to her traumatized mother. He wanted to admit the emaciated girl for hydration and intensive nutritional treatment, but she may not make it. The pediatrician said he is seeing more and more cases of malnutrition in his clinic.
Syria has changed the world. As we observe the 10th anniversary of the Syrian revolution, it would be good for Biden to speak to the American people about how he intends to lead on Syria.
Zaher Sahloul is president of MedGlobal, a medical charity that builds resilience in disaster regions.