As atrocities committed by the self-declared Islamic State (IS), also called ISIS or ISIL, dominate media headlines, we must not forget the civilians who have been suffering since long before IS gained a stronghold in parts of Syria and Iraq. We must remember the people whose lives James Foley, Steven Sotloff, and David Haines were working to improve. Syrians have been struggling through the worst humanitarian crisis of our time, living without “the security and dignity and freedom that is the birth right of every human being.” President Barack Obama claims to fight “for the security of the country, and the region, and for the entire world,” but we must recognize that U.S. actions will likely serve only a select few. Meanwhile, Syrian civilians face further misery, as their homes are bombed by the U.S. government and its allies.
The U.S.-led military intervention was sparked by the deplorable and highly public beheadings of two American journalists and a British aid worker. However, these atrocities are, as President Obama knows well, a small drop in a very bloody bucket. Syria’s civil war is well into its fourth year, with more deaths and human rights abuses occurring each day. Just last year, President Obama expressed his desire to intervene in response to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons against its own people. However, Bashar al-Assad’s government has continued to use chemical agents, with the most recent reports surfacing just this week. These and other appalling violations have been eclipsed by the media craze surrounding IS; justice for crimes committed by the Syrian government is, unfortunately, not on the radar. In light of just how much blood has been shed, I am horrified to see how our president let the viral, confrontational, and manipulative nature of these select atrocities guide his decision-making, especially when comparable atrocities committed by the Assad regime have drawn no real response.
For the Syrian people, our intervention may be at best too little, too late, or at worst an ill-advised decision that tips the scales in favor of Assad and his macabre regime. For me, the recent military action is a bitter reminder that my country places a far greater value on the lives of two Americans than it does on the lives of the tens of thousands of innocent Syrians. Nevertheless, with the world’s eyes on Syria – however fleetingly – we must take the opportunity to highlight the atrocities Assad and his security forces continue to commit and get away with.
The flagrant disregard for centuries-old international humanitarian law, by all actors in this conflict, has resulted in the deaths of 560 medical professionals and 195 attacks on hospitals. The lives of millions of Syrians, both at home and in neighboring countries, are plagued by insecurities on a daily basis – to a level that we cannot even begin to imagine. Doctors, nurses, journalists, and everyday heroes in Syria are risking their lives to fight for the freedom, justice, and dignity that the U.S. government claims to promote.
As the United States goes to war to avenge American deaths and preempt potential future attacks on U.S. soil, it is necessary to think realistically about whom the government’s actions actually benefit. Let us recognize the consequences of making courtesy phone calls to the Syrian regime as we help them in their battles against IS. Let us understand the humanitarian impact our actions have on Syrian civilians and how we might inadvertently contribute to their death toll, overwhelm their already devastated hospitals, and drive more people to join the very extremist groups that we are fighting. Most importantly, as the United States fights for “freedom,” “justice,” and “security,” let us remember that Syrians began protesting to achieve these same goals three and a half years ago – and nearly 200,000 deaths later, these rights have never seemed further away.