Humanitarian stakes are very high in Syria

Aug. 4—The administration of President Joe Biden faces numerous challenges related to the behavior of Russia, perhaps none as critical and immediate as Vladimir Putin’s alliance with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Russia has supported and aided Assad’s reign of terror in Syria, which began in earnest after pro-democracy demonstrations erupted in March 2011. Since then, Assad’s forces have used poisonous gas, torture and other brutal means to trigger a humanitarian disaster of epic proportions.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, nearly 390,000 people have died in the resulting conflicts, including about 117,000 civilians. Those totals do not include 205,300 people who are missing and presumed dead. Nearly 90,000 civilians are believed to have died of torture in government prisons.

About 6.8 million Syrians have become refugees, and a roughly equal number are displaced within the country. Together, they account for more than half of the nation’s population. World Vision, a global Christian humanitarian organization, calls it “the world’s largest refugee and displacement crisis of our time.”

Even as the U.S. pulls troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq, about 900 American troops will remain in Syria. But their mission isn’t as much to undermine Assad’s regime as to support the Syrian Democratic Forces fighting the Islamic State group (IS). It’s a familiar role for U.S. troops, one they’ve played since 2014.

Former President Donald Trump twice moved to pull the U.S. military out of Syria, but the twin threats of IS and Russian influence ultimately dictated that the troops remain. The U.S. presence has prevented Assad and the Russians from tapping into the rich oil fields of northeastern Syria.

In addition, American financial and commercial sanctions against Assad, his family and his allies in Syria have helped to limit the government’s assets and access to resources.

Most recently, in July, the Biden administration announced its first set of sanctions in Syria — denying access to the international financial system for the country’s prisons and the officials who run them.

Financial sanctions can be effective, but Assad’s terrorist actions against his own people will continue as long as other, more drastic measures aren’t taken to stop them.

That brings us back to Russia.

A permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, Russia has blocked resolutions condemning Assad’s chemical weapons attacks and other mass killings at least eight times since the onset of the Syrian civil war in 2011.

As the Obama and Trump administrations did before, the Biden administration walks a tightrope in Syria; danger lurks on all sides.

But with civilian victims piling up by the week, Biden must figure out a way to pressure Russia to back off, and to bring down Assad — without opening the door for IS in Syria.

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