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.