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Opinion Ten years later, the Syrian revolution is not over

A Syrian child poses atop a stack of neutralized shells at a metal scrapyard in the northwestern Idlib province on Wednesday.
A Syrian child poses atop a stack of neutralized shells at a metal scrapyard in the northwestern Idlib province on Wednesday. (Aaref Watad/AFP/Getty Images)

In February 2011, speaking at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, then-Vice President Joe Biden pledged to support people around the world who were being slaughtered by their own governments for demanding basic freedom and dignity. “When a state engages in atrocity, it forfeits its sovereignty,” Biden said. One month later, the people of Syria took to the streets to demand that their government treat them like human beings. In response, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad unleashed the worst systematic atrocities since the Nazis.

Now, 10 years later, Biden is back in the White House — this time as president — and despite what you may have heard, the Syrian revolution continues. The conventional wisdom in Washington is that Assad has won the war and that there’s nothing the United States can do, so we should do essentially nothing. In fact, though, the Syrian people never stopped fighting — and their suffering has never ceased.

Assad and his Russian and Iranian partners control roughly two-thirds of the country, ruling his rump state with brute force and still trying to starve or bomb the rest of Syria into submission. Inside the areas Assad controls, hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians rot away in his dungeons, tortured and murdered for no reason.

But as hopeless as it all seems, the Syrians who are still fighting for freedom from Assad say there’s a lot the international community can still do. The Syrian people believed it when Biden and others promised to stand with anyone brave enough to stand up for their rights, said Qutaiba Idlbi, the U.S. representative of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces.

“We are here today because that promise by the international community has not been fulfilled,” he said at an event Thursday hosted by the Holocaust museum, the Syrian Emergency Task Force and the M. Night Shyamalan Foundation. “We need the United States to take back its international leadership role.”

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The key effort now should be to support Syrians who refuse to live under Assad’s rule, he said. That includes more than 6 million internally displaced civilians living in Syria’s northwest or northeast, 3 million civilians living in hard-to-reach or besieged areas, according to the United Nations, plus 5.6 million Syrians living as refugees in other countries.

Imagine if the United States led an international effort to help those Syrians Assad doesn’t rule over by giving them supplies, pandemic relief and economic support, while using sanctions smartly to deny Assad the ability to profit from his crimes or replenish his war machine. That would actually increase Syrians’ leverage with the regime to negotiate a just peace and boost Washington’s leverage when dealing with Moscow or Tehran.

“They have voted with their feet,” Qutaiba said. “They have decided not to live under the Assad regime.” For that reason, he said, they deserve all the backing we can give them.

The United States can also drastically expand its support for the various international efforts to hold the Assad regime and its partners accountable for their war crimes. Russia’s long abuse of its U.N. Security Council veto power has rendered the International Criminal Court a dead end. But there are criminal and civil cases in several countries, as more and more torture survivors escape and tell their stories.

As president, Biden has said practically nothing about Syria. His administration’s only action on the issue has been to bomb a couple of warehouses used by Iranian-linked militias in response to an attack on U.S. troops in Iraq.

The first priority of the Biden administration should be to declare clearly that the United States remains committed to the objective of a transition of power in Syria and will no longer stand by while Assad, Russia and Iran commit war crimes and crimes against humanity there. The United States cannot lead from behind. The Biden administration must make a firm decision to put Syria high on its agenda.

“Perhaps understandably, the administration would like to find a way to avoid this problem, if at all possible. But it’s just not possible,” said former ambassador Frederic C. Hof, who advised the Obama administration on Syria. If Biden doesn’t do something, he added, “Syria’s status as the North Korea of the Middle East will be thoroughly solidified, and Syria will be a profound threat to the peace in the region and beyond.”

The easiest way to dismiss the call for action in Syria is to present it as a false choice between a full-blown Iraq-style military invasion and doing nothing. But that is using a false analogy to justify a penny-wise, pound-foolish strategy. Without an end to the atrocities, there cannot be an end to the war. And without justice and accountability, there can be no sustainable peace.

The American people may be tired of the Syrian crisis, but the Syrian people — those who have survived the horrors of this war — are determined. They know their decade-long struggle for dignity and freedom is far from over, whether the world supports them or not.

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