On September 10, 2013, President Obama gave a stirring speech from the White House in response to the chemical weapon attack on the Damascus suburbs of Ghouta which left over 1,400 Syrians dead—suffocating from sarin gas launched in the middle of the night on a civilian population by the Assad regime. Many of the victims were children. Their images—doll-like and waxy-skinned—haunted the world. Obama asked members of Congress and the American people to watch the videos of Syrian children dying on hospital floors. He then asked, “What kind of world will we live in if the United States of America sees a dictator brazenly violate international law with poison gas and we choose to look the other way?”
It’s been almost two years since that speech. Today, we live in the world that the president described. A world in which people in powerful positions chose to look the other way. And so the daily carnage in Syria, by barrel bomb, by beheading, and yes, by chemical weapons, continued.
Today, almost half of the Syrian population has been displaced as a result of the relentless brutality of the Assad regime and the shocking violence of ISIS and Al Qaida. Eleven million people no longer live in their homes. Four million of them are refugees in neighboring countries. Over the past year, thousands of refugees have decided to risk their lives for a better future in Europe, embarking on harrowing “death routes” across sea and land.
On Wednesday, yet another horrific image from the Syrian tragedy went viral. This time it was a toddler boy, 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, who looked like a sleeping baby, facedown on a sandy beach in Bodrum, Turkey, with the waves lapping around him. His mother had dressed him in a bright red T-shirt, navy shorts, and sturdy shoes—he was dressed for a journey to a better future in Canada. But like thousands of other Syrian refugees fleeing the war, little Aylan, his 5-year-old brother Galip and his mother, Rehan, along with nine other people on the same boat were not granted safe passage.
A Syrian woman posted on Facebook recently, “Under the Mediterranean, on the bottom of the sea, another Syria exists, one that’s full of life: children kicking soccer balls, teens doing their homework, women cooking, men working, and the elderly sipping coffee. If you visit the bottom of the sea, you will discover another Syria.” It truly does seem as if Syrians no longer belong on this Earth.
Over the past months, the world’s attention has been focused on the growing “migrant” crisis that confronts Europe. Reporters follow Syrian refugees across land and water, telling tale after harrowing tale, sometimes of survival, other times of heroism, and many times of death. The narratives often omit an honest answer to the question: “Why are there so many Syrian refugees?” Muddled words like “civil war,” “fleeing the violence,” and worse blaming the entire crisis on ISIS do not explain what has been happening in Syria for over four years.
Syrian refugees are not the result of a natural disaster. You cannot abstract them into a purely humanitarian package. Every Syrian refugee is a refugee because of the international political and military decisions and failures that empowered and chose the Assad regime over the Syrian people.
Last week, the story of the 71 Syrians who suffocated to death in a Hungarian truck caused an uproar in Europe that surprised most Syrians. For over four years now, millions of Syrians have been asking, “Where is the world?” Now, finally, we watched people across the world rise up in action: from Germany, Austria, Ireland, Norway, Iceland, and more. Thousands opening their homes and welcoming refugees to their country. Thousands protesting in demand of better treatment of the refugees. Thousands displaying an outpour of generosity and compassion for Syrians that we have not witnessed yet.
All over the world, people are proving that humanity still exists, but most world leaders have not been so brave or kind.
Last Wednesday, we also learned that President Obama has cinched his Iran Deal—touted as a “major victory for diplomacy” and “a choice of peace over war.” How lovely. And how fitting that the passing of this “historic” deal was celebrated on the same day that a Syrian baby was washed up on a beach?
One of the biggest complaints of supporters of the Iran deal about its critics is that they oppose the deal for no real reason but the sake of opposing. Perhaps for some politicians, that’s true. Syrians, though, can’t afford the luxury of contrariness. There is one very important reason to oppose any sort of concessions with Iran: Syria. Any deal that supports the regime that fuels the Assad regime’s military is simply a deal that rewards genocide, destruction, and mass displacement of innocent people.
For every impassioned hashtag and viral image shared about the Syrian tragedy, one fact must be repeated over and over: The crisis is a global humanitarian one; but the source of terror, violence, and the never-ending waves of refugees lives in Damascus. As this brilliant young Syrian teen explained: “You just stop the war and we don’t want to go to Europe.”
Despite these simple facts, the deal is now done and the red lines have been crossed too many times to count and course-correction seems to be impossible. Syrian Americans are now pleading the Syrian case to the slew of presidential candidates on both parties—an act that underscores the complete loss of faith in the Obama administration. The administration of hope and change. The administration that supposedly knows how to stop a problem from hell.
Even if the next president will change the current non-strategy on Syria (which is highly unlikely), that will be 17 long months from now. Seventeen more months of watching our people die. Seventeen more months of barrel bombs. Seventeen more months of ISIS terror. Seventeen more months of babies washing up on beaches.
From the very first day of the Syrian uprising, we were all faced with a simple choice: to stand with liberty or oppression? Justice or brutality? Dignity or humiliation? Our choices had terrifying implications, but were obvious.
However, in this world of cynical geopolitical interests, some have argued for years that there were no “real” or “good” choices left for Syria. That it was all just so “complicated.” That nothing the US or international community could do would make a difference. This is exactly the way one chooses to turn the other way—by convincing yourself that there is no choice.
There are choices infinitely more difficult than President Obama has ever faced. The choice of Syrian mothers who decided that the leaky boats they were to embark upon were not safe enough for their 16 infants and so they left them behind at a Turkish hospital. Or the choice of Aylan’s parents, who dreamt of a new country and new future for their children. Aylan’s father, Abdallah, will forever have to live with his choice that cost him his family.
Those are the devastating, inhumane choices that Syrians are forced to make every single day. For millions of Syrians, one of the only choices left is choosing how to die: at home, in a tent, in a truck, or on a boat. In the case of this family, death on a train track in Hungary is better than living in a camp.
Isn’t it time to make the right and just choice for Syria? Isn’t it time for world leaders to take a cue from their compassionate people and demand that not only must refugees be welcomed and allowed safe passage to their adopted homes, but that source of the refugee crisis must be stemmed immediately as well? Barrel bombs must stop falling from Assad’s planes. ISIS and Al Qaeda must be uprooted from Syria. Syrian civilians must be granted protected zones inside Syria so they can rebuild their lives on their own homeland.
Looking away from the thousands of Syrian children who have been killed was a choice made in exchange for a stellar foreign policy chapter in Obama’s future legacy. But the president must know that Aylan Kurdi’s fate is also part of his (and his administration’s) legacy. You can’t claim one without the other.
It’s time to make for new choices for Syria. Real choices, not awareness hashtags, empty condemnations, and flimsy Band-Aids. Choices that finally break the cycle of violence and end genocide. Not in 2017. Now. Before more Syrians join the other Syria that exists at the bottom of the sea.