A humanitarian approach to Syria: Views from an expert and an immigrant

Bashir Hassan can think of only one word to describe his feelings as he receives news from Syria: fear. He worries for his family still in the country — civilians caught in a six-year long civil war that has no end in sight.

“Every day or every week we lose more,” Hassan said of his relatives, who live in the capital city of Damascus. “They are not doing well.”

Hassan came to the United States 45 years ago and settled in Boulder soon after his arrival. But in a way, part of him remains with his family in Syria, at least those still alive amidst a conflict in which more than 400,000 have died. As of March 2017, 6.3 million Syrians were internally displaced and an additional five million had fled the country.

“[The war] destroys lots of families, lots of people,” he said. “Last year, I lost my sister, I lost my nephews. One day they are alive, one day they are not. One minute they are alive, one minute they are not.”

On April 4, the international community learned of a chemical attack carried out by the Syrian military on Khan Sheikhoun, a town in rebel controlled Idlib province. The most recent atrocity ordered by President Bashar al Assad against his own people, such as Hassan’s relatives.

According to a New York Times report that cited witnesses, doctors and rescue workers, warplanes dropped chemical nerve agent as Syrians slept in the early morning hours. The attack created a toxic zone in which more than 80 people died while writhing, choking, gasping or foaming at the mouth.

Sixty-three hours after the attack took place, President Trump ordered 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles to strike the Al Shayrat airfield in western Syria. At a White House news conference on April 5, Trump said he arrived at his decision after seeing the horror of “innocent children, innocent babies” being killed.

While Trump touted an altruistic response, career national security professional Mark Fallon said the president’s motivation may extend beyond humanitarianism, and end up creating more harm than good.

“I am fearful, based on a pattern of behavior that I’ve seen out of President Trump in the past, that this appears to be an emotional reaction…he wanted to feel good that he did something that got him applause,” said Fallon, a former senior executive in the Department of Homeland Security.

In addition, the U.S. decision to bomb Syria failed to take into account the potential aftermath of such an action. Fallon said rather than firing missiles, the U.S. should continue “trying to figure out what to do with refugees.”

He also questioned how many refugees we can expect other countries to accept.

“If we are supposed to be the global leader, [if] we are supposed to represent the mythical shining city on the hill, that we are expecting other nations to absorb some responsibility and some risk by accepting refugees…if we ourselves are deciding that we are not” is of concern, Fallon said.

“Thousands have been killed, children have been displaced,” Fallon said. “We are creating a global refugee crisis, what do you do with those people, 10 years from now, 20 years from now? Are you creating the very adversary you’re fearing, based on your actions?”

If the U.S. wishes to work towards resolving this crisis, Fallon said, it must abandon isolationist and anti-Islamic rhetoric, which he believes is inconsistent with a “policy to treat refugees humanely and find placement for them.”

This type of communication is “fuel to the fire,” he said.

“You don’t fight fire with fire, that’s what arsonists do,” he said. “You don’t want to use Islamic extremism to fuel the fire, you want to take the oxygen out of that phrase by not using it.”

Syria’s troubles have extended beyond just Assad, and beyond its borders. Terrorist networks like ISIS have taken advantage of the splintered state Assad’s war created. Further complicating the proxy war entangling the U.S., Russia, Turkey, Iran and other neighboring states.

According to Fallon, the rise of terrorist groups like ISIS in Syria poses a threat to national security through their global network of online recruitment and attacks.

In response to this threat, the Trump administration dropped the “mother of all bombs” on a tunnel complex used by ISIS militants in eastern Afghanistan this past Saturday. The action indicated a commitment to an aggressive fight against the group, and terrorists like them.

However, not all members of the administration are in favor of the use of military force as the primary tactic in U.S. foreign policy. Speaking before Congress at a National Security Advisory Council meeting in 2013, Secretary of Defense James Mattis demonstrated a preference for diplomacy. “The more that we put into the State Department’s diplomacy, hopefully the less we have to put into a military budget,” he said.

More diplomatic approaches to this could involve implementing the U.N. Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, which focuses on addressing the conditions that catalyze the spread of terrorism by “ensuring human rights and the rule of law.”

If the goal is to defeat ISIS, as Trump stated throughout his campaign, Fallon said it is paramount for the U.S. to combat Assad without creating a power vacuum in which terrorists can flourish.

Additionally, Fallon believes the U.S. must do more to enhance the capacity for Syria, and states like it, to offer their citizens paths that do not lead toward violence. “What we fail to do is offer a viable alternative to that disaffected, dehumanized person around the globe, in search of an identity, who’s looking to be relevant just like any American 20-year-old is,” Fallon said.

When it comes to Syria, and the general problem of instability in the Middle East, “It’s less about winning or ending,” Fallon said. “We’re not going to solve the conflict. It’s not our conflict, it’s their conflict. And so somehow we’re going to have to develop strategies that help empower them to develop solutions to their issues.”

But for people with personal connections to the Syrian Civil War, like Hassan, the U.S. could do more.

“The U.S. did not handle the situation well from the beginning,” Hassan said. “We call ourselves the best country on Earth. Show me. We put an end to chaos around the world, why not Syria?”

Contact CU Independent Copy Editor Emily McPeak at emily.mcpeak@colorado.edu and on Twitter @emily_mcpeak.

Emily McPeak

Emily McPeak is an undergraduate student who writes about society and politics. She is studying journalism and political science.

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