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Forsaken Syria

MADRID – In this year of ubiquitous commemorations, the centennial of Jan Karski’s birth has been largely overlooked. And yet Karski’s legacy is more important than ever – nowhere more so than in Syria. As the Geneva II peace process slogs along – leaving cadavers and atrocities to pile up – Karski’s dedication to bringing the plight of Poland’s Jews to the world’s attention during World War II, despite the inertia of governments and publics, embodies exactly what Syria desperately needs.

In 1942, Karski, a Polish-born diplomat, traveled to the United Kingdom to report on what came to be called the Holocaust. The next year, he embarked on a mission to the United States to brief President Franklin D. Roosevelt and other dignitaries on the horrors that he had witnessed. In both cases, he was met with skepticism and apathy. Indeed, it was only toward the end of the war that action was taken to stop the slaughter.

Although the Holocaust is a category of persecution sui generis, one cannot avoid thinking of Karski in light of the international community’s approach to Syria today. Expectations for the Geneva talks are so low that trivial matters – such as the fact that President Bashar al-Assad’s negotiators and the opposition are sitting together in the same room (though not at the same table) – are being hailed as successes.

Even the agreement to allow women and children to leave blockaded areas of the city of Homs – an anti-Assad stronghold – fell far short of international mediators’ vision (and even this achievement seems to be in doubt). Instead of allowing a United Nations aid convoy to bring humanitarian aid to the area, the government agreed to release women and children on an as-yet-uncertain timeline, while men can leave only after their names had been cleared, raising fears of arrest. Meanwhile, amid plodding deliberations of incremental steps that are clearly inadequate, Syrians are being displaced, wounded, tortured, and killed in droves.

By any measure, the level of suffering in Syria is shocking. Although figures do not convey the cruelty by all sides, it has become de rigueur to cite the numbers: more than 100,000 dead, 2.3 million refugees, and four million people internally displaced.

But a year ago, the figures were already dire: 60,000 dead, 700,000 international refugees, and two million internally displaced. If there were a threshold of misery that would cause the world to say, “Enough is enough,” it surely would have been crossed by now.

The ugly truth is that the world’s response to this crisis has been shaped by geopolitical interests, not the need to put an end to appalling human suffering. Indeed, it is no secret that the conflict serves as a proxy for larger struggles – between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the US and Iran, Russia and the US, Shia and Sunni Muslims, and moderates and extremists – and that resolving it will require significant effort on all of these fronts.

From an American perspective, Syria is not strategically critical. President Barack Obama’s administration has maintained an intensely inward-looking focus, reinforced by a public wary of foreign engagements. Nothing short of a drastic change in the conflict’s nature that threatened America’s core interests would lead to direct US involvement.

Guilt, after all, is a poor motivator for international action. Even the UK and France – the only two countries that were not shy about threatening military action against Assad’s regime – got cold feet when confronted with the possibility of going it alone.

Instead, the world is responding to graphic images of unspeakable brutality – torture by the regime or executions carried out by the opposition – with sterile shows of outrage. The stream of statements, half-measures, and clumsy initiatives has done little to improve the situation – and, in some instances, has made things worse.

Consider Obama’s call, backed by no action, for Assad to “step aside,” and his repeated promises, dating to early 2012, to provide non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition – promises that were finally fulfilled late last year, and then only temporarily. This gap between rhetoric and action left a vacuum; Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and private donors subsequently filled it by channeling support to extremist elements of the opposition, strengthening their hand at the expense of those being called moderates.

But the most infamous example of this policy paralysis was Obama’s 2012 declaration that the use of chemical weapons was the “red line” beyond which the US would be forced to intervene. His ultimate failure to follow through on his proclamation emboldened and, in a way, re-legitimized Assad.

It remains to be seen whether Geneva II will follow this pattern. The price of the talks has already been high, with all sides having ramped up violence to strengthen their respective positions ahead of the negotiations. This is to say nothing of the fiasco surrounding the withdrawn invitation to Iran, whose buy-in will be essential for any resolution.

In any case, the incremental nature of the talks belies the situation’s urgency. Amid the current focus on regime change, a transitional government, and negotiating delegations, there is a real danger that the desperate humanitarian situation will be overlooked.

Here, citizens have a critical role to play. But, like their leaders, publics everywhere have been reticent to act. Indeed, opinion polls show that, despite near-universal awareness of the situation in Syria, there is very little public support for intervention. But handwringing will not help; we – individuals – must accept real responsibility for ending the tragedy and press our leaders to act.

It has been more than 70 years since Karski presented his report to the world. In that time, we have created the United Nations, adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and discussed endlessly governments’ “responsibility to protect” their citizens. Yet, watching the Syrian tragedy develop, one might conclude that nothing has changed. How many times must we say, “Never again”?