France is a dream for so many people around the world, standing as a symbol of justice, equality and liberty. That unity of spirit makes it a target for terrorist groups desperate to find ways to shake its foundation.
As the world mourns Paris’ victims and their families, there’s a certain irony unfolding. Besieged Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is reaching out to the West to help in containing the Islamic State, which has taken responsibility for the attacks, by negotiating for help to remain in power.
But it is Assad who fostered extremism and sectarianism in Syria, enabled ISIS, destroyed his own country, and deliberately continues to drop barrel bombs to kill his own civilians. It was Assad’s releasing from prison many of the jihadists in Iraq that provided a boost to ISIS.
So here we are in the West, stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Do we commit to keeping a war criminal in power for his promise to help in containing a terrorist threat, which means abandoning rebels that rely on American support, essentially condemning them to death? Or do we continue to support those rebels and, perhaps, lose resources that Assad might provide in our quest to rid the Middle East of ISIS?
This is what happens when American leaders fail to act on promises and “red lines.” Over four years, Assad has killed more than 330,000 people and caused the exodus of 4 million, and the internal displacement of 7.6 million civilians, half of who are children. His regime targeted the moderate leaders of the opposition and the organizers, leaving those in the liberated areas to a power vacuum and enabling extremists group such as the Islamic State and al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate, to come in and take control.
Today, the invaders of ISIS and al-Nusra are killing and destroying Syria. ISIS militants are burning people alive, raping young girls and destroying temples that date to the Neolithic era. They are also building terrorists networks around the world.
The extremists serve Assad on many fronts, mostly by helping his regime appear to the world as the lesser of the two evils. They helped Assad defeat a moderate opposition inside Syria by assassinating its leaders and pushing democracy supporters to flee the country. At the same time, extremists from around the world arrived to join the newly established “state” in Syria and Iraq.
The lack of leadership of the United Nations and the NATO for the past four years has created a dangerous imbalance in the region.
It allowed ISIS to expand, Assad to use chemical weapons against his own civilians, and it gave the green light for a Russian military intervention in Syria to serve its own geopolitical interests. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed that in October 185 civilians were killed by Russian air strikes, including 48 children and 46 women. According to the United Nations, more than 120,000 Syrians have been displaced since Moscow’s airstrikes started.
The idea that ISIS is “contained,” as President Barack Obama claimed, is a fallacy. ISIS struck Sharm el-Sheikh, Beirut, Baghdad and Paris in a two-week period. It is time for strong leadership to form a resolute strategy to eliminate ISIS. Though the U.S. and the EU are critical in the fight against ISIS, the group’s defeat relies on a united Syria, and the only way for that to happen is to remove the Assad family from power. His departure will stop the atrocities that give fuel to ISIS.
Enough lost chances. Every year we think we have reached a bottom to the Syrian crisis, only to find that conditions can and do grow worse. Even here in the United States we have politicians casting aspersions on millions of innocent Syrian refugees, all because of the deaths caused by two dozen men and a forged Syrian passport.
How could we punish children like Aylan Al-Kurdi — the 3-year-old whose lifeless body found on a Turkish beach put a face to the refugee crisis — for the crimes of terrorists from whom Aylan and millions of others are fleeing?
In some ways, Syrian violence is now tearing apart America’s own moral fabric. Times ahead are expected to be horrific, but waiting will only make it worse, no matter where you live.
Haya Ajjan is an assistant professor of management information systems at Elon University and a native of Syria.