Robert Ford, a retired career Foreign Service officer and former U.S. ambassador to Syria from 2011 to 2014, is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and a lecturer at Yale University. Wa'el Alzayat, a former senior policy advisor at the State Department, is chief executive of Emgage, a nonprofit Muslim American advocacy group.
Syria will enter its eighth year of hellish conflict this March. What first began as peaceful calls for freedom and political reform transformed into a civil war of epic proportions, mainly due to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's brutal and violent response. Figuring out what the United States can do to help resolve the crisis is not easy, but one thing is obvious: As long as the murder and mayhem continue, the U.S. government should not force Syrians in the United States back to the inferno.
The Homeland Security Department granted temporary protected status to non-immigrant Syrian nationals living in the United States in March 2012, allowing them to remain as long as "there exist extraordinary and temporary conditions in Syria that prevent Syrian nationals from returning in safety." The government has consistently renewed the designation — most recently in 2016 — to extend protection for 6,900 Syrians in our country.
But reports indicate that the Trump administration is considering terminating the protection, which is up for renewal once again in March. Granting protection was the right thing to do in 2012 and 2016, and it is the right thing to do now. As the war burns on, until there is some prospect that these Syrians have a chance to safely reestablish their lives in their own country, we cannot in good conscience send them back to almost-assured persecution.
In recent months, the Trump administration has terminated the protection status for tens of thousands of Haitians and Salvadorans, spurring significant outrage. But regardless of one's opinions on those decisions, there really shouldn't be any debate about protecting Syrians.
Simply put, the situation in Syria has not changed enough to end protections for Syrians. Devastating photos of the war — including civilians killed in gas attacks; school and hospital bombings; and regime torture chambers — have been so constant as to be almost numbing. While our government has spearheaded great progress against the Islamic State, the fighting among Syrians isn't over by a long stretch.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has rightly observed that "there is no way to effectively facilitate a large-scale safe and voluntary return" of Syrians overseas without a political solution to the conflict.
And in areas under Assad's control, the human rights record is, as Tillerson noted, "notorious the world over." In 2016, the U.N. Commission of Inquiry found "massive and systematized violence — including the killing of detainees in official and makeshift detention centers." The commission also said the Syrian government had committed war crimes, including extermination, murder, rape, torture and forced disappearance.
While no definitive numbers exist of prisoners held by the government in Syria, most estimate it to be in the tens of thousands. The world saw a horrifying glimpse of that reality when a brave Syrian military photographer named Caesar defected with thousands of images showing the emaciated and bruised bodies of prisoners tortured to death in Assad's jails.
Meanwhile, the regime views most of those who left during the conflict as either members of, or sympathizers with, the opposition, so it is not a reach to conclude that those who return will be in grave danger. Syrian leaders have indicated that they would face suspicion and zero chance of a fair hearing from the ubiquitous and ruthless security forces and their allied militias. In September 2017, Major Gen. Issam Zaherddine, commander of the regime's Republican Guard in Deir al-Zour province until his death one month later, said: "To those who fled Syria to any other country, I say: Please do not return, because even if the state forgives you, I swear that we will never forgive or forget. My advice is that none of you return."
To say sending these Syrians back may be a death sentence is not an exaggeration. The 6,900 Syrians with protected status need our help. Syrian nationals have already contributed to and enriched our country. They are entrepreneurs, doctors, teachers and cooks. To know these people is to know generosity, hospitality and hard work.
Our country has not been able to prevent the persecution and subsequent displacement of millions of Syrians; no one has. But we have been able to give temporary safe harbor to a small number of those suffering. We can show them and the world that we can continue to do the right thing by renewing their protection before it expires.