Will Obama Regret Standing By While Syrians Starve?

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December 15, 2013; Washington Post

The Washington Post’s editorial page editor, Fred Hiatt, wrote a piece on the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Syria that ought to galvanize the attention of the Obama White House. He reminds President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and National Security Advisor Susan Rice that they all, prior to taking the White House, eviscerated the Bush administration for allowing people to starve in Darfur.

Now, as Syrians are starving—and freezing, due to an historic snowfall and cold spell—Hiatt says that the Obama administration has provided some help for Syrian refugees outside the war-torn country, but “has done virtually nothing for the people inside.” The government of Bashar al-Assad is bombing the heck of out of his countrymen, denying humanitarian assistance, and hundreds of thousands of Syrians are literally starving.

Hiatt explores and dismisses several possible explanations for the Obama administration’s tepid response:

  • They don’t know what is happening. Hiatt quotes Kerry actually talking about “Assad’s war of starvation,” demonstrating that “ignorance can’t be the explanation.”
  • What’s happening in Syria is a civil war, not a humanitarian catastrophe. Hiatt quotes Rice’s comments about Darfur, that while a political settlement was needed to end the fighting, action on humanitarian concerns had to proceed at the same time. That isn’t what the Obama administration is doing regarding the mass starvation occurring within Syria today.
  • There’s nothing we can do. Back in 2004, Rice articulately described what the U.S. could have done to help Darfurians, including “airdrops, a no-fly zone to protect civilians from government bombing, the establishment of humanitarian safe zones and security for critical deliveries by rail and road.” That’s not the Obama administration’s thinking about Syria.
  • U.S. action would be illegal without UN approval, and Russia would block UN approval. Rice wrote in 2006 that the UN Security Council established a policy that “commits UN members to decisive action, including enforcement, when peaceful measures fail to halt genocide or crimes against humanity.” One might think that the starvation of hundreds of thousands of Syrians qualifies.
  • It doesn’t matter to us. Talking about Darfur, Obama in 2006 said “we can’t insulate ourselves from these [humanitarian] tragedies.” This year, Kerry wrote, “The world cannot sit by watching innocents die.” But Hiatt says, “Obama’s America can and does.”

It is a devastating column by Hiatt. Former President Bill Clinton says his failure to intervene in Rwanda is the greatest regret of his term in office. Clinton said, “If we’d gone in sooner, I believe we could have saved at least a third of the lives that were lost…it had an enduring impact on me.” That number, by the way, would have amounted to saving perhaps some 300,000 people.

Obama, Kerry, and Rice may look back on the starvation in Syria and consider their inaction a huge regret. Their regret means nothing to hundreds of thousands of starving and freezing Syrians.—Rick Cohen