About Syria

Remarks to the Al Madad Foundation

I’m honored to share a very brief moment with you tonight. I crossed the Atlantic to be here for two reasons. 

First, the work of the Al Madad Foundation is crucial. An entire generation of young people in the Levant are being crippled by the combination of trauma and educational deprivation. The organizers and supporters of the Foundation are people I admire and respect for their humane generosity. Their cause is timely and just. It deserves all the help we can give it.

Second, the Foundation is now very appropriately focused on Syria, which is where civilization began and where it has now collapsed. Syrians have always been a people of great charm, sophistication, and ability. For much of their history, they have suffered from bad governance. The horrors they are now enduring are without precedent.

Governments are part of the cause of the persistent chaos in Syria. So far, they are not part of the solution. If you care about what is happening in Syria, you must take action on your own. You can do so through civil society organizations like the Al Madad Foundation and its partners in Syria, Lebanon, and neighboring countries. Syria and Syrians matter.

The first time I visited Syria, I was living in Saudi Arabia and I asked a Saudi-Syrian friend what I needed to know before visiting Damascus. This was back when there was still a Soviet Union. To my surprise, my friend responded by asking me whether I had followed “the most recent Special Forces Olympics.” 

He explained that every four years, the best commandos in the world compete in a world martial arts championship. The last such contest, he said, had ended up in a play-off between the United States, the USSR, and Syria. Each team was asked to select one soldier to go into the forest alone, bare-handed, and bring out a rabbit.

So an American, a Russian, and a Syrian commando each went into the forest. After a while, the Russian came out, holding a rabbit by the ears. The American soon followed with another rabbit. But the Syrian officer did not appear.

The sun began to go down. People became concerned. They went looking for the missing Syrian. After a while, they found him. He was holding a donkey by the ears, beating it, and hissing, “confess you are a rabbit! Confess you are a rabbit!”

Over the last three years of sectarian violence in Syria, the great powers of the world and the region have behaved more like rabbits than like men. Surely, W. B. Yeats anticipated today’s Syria when he declaimed:

“The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

Two decades ago, reflecting on the savagery in Bosnia, a British general formulated three principles for intervention in civil wars: “(1) Don’t. (2) If you do, pick the side that will win. And, (3) help that side win fast.” His point was that sometimes the resolution of a conflict, any resolution at all, is better than the interminable continuation of violence. Whether he was right or wrong, in Syria the world has violated all of his rules. The outcome has been and remains hideous.

As you all know, the statistics are horrifying. 9.5 million Syrians are now in desperate need.  There are 2.5 million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries and 7 million displaced internally. 150,000 Syrians are thought to have died by violence over the last three years. By conservative estimate, about 600,000 have been wounded. More than 10,000 children have been killed and another 40,000 injured. Altogether, 5.5 million Syrian children have been affected by the conflict. At least 1.2 million of them have fled to neighboring countries, including 425,000 under the age of five. One in five Syrian girls is being forced into early marriage rather than going to school. There is no way to measure the degree of trauma all this has inflicted on the generation that must eventually rebuild Syria.

In February, the U.N. Security Council finally adopted a resolution demanding that Syria’s government and other combatants provide immediate access to relief workers. Nothing was said or proposed to be done about access to education, yet 4,000 Syrian schools have closed. Thousands of teachers are displaced and out of work. An entire generation of Syrians – even those in safe haven – is being denied the experience of a normal childhood and deprived of access to education. Meanwhile, relief is not getting through to those who need it in Syria. Refugees in camps in neighboring countries are safer but not much better off.

The unrest in Syria began amidst the wave of Arab uprisings that wishful thinkers in the West called the “Arab spring.” Tunisia’s president Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak were rapidly deposed by demonstrators and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Salih faced similar ouster. Bashar Al-Assad panicked. His government’s brutal suppression of demonstrators in southern Syria ignited an insurrection against him.  

Arab and Western governments alike already loathed Assad  It was all too easy for Washington, Riyadh, Doha, Ankara, and other capitals to imagine that, with a little help from outsiders, rebellious Syrians could overthrow Assad’s government. This was and remains a tragic misjudgment. After seeing what followed Saddam Hussein’s removal from power in Iraq, a lot of Syrians with no love for Mr. Assad had formed a well-founded fear of who and what might succeed him. Iranians, Russians, and Hezbollah proved willing to fight to the last Syrian for their own interests in Syria. They believe these interests are best served by Mr. Assad’s survival. No one has really made the case to them that they should have an urgent interest in ending the suffering of the Syrian people. As the chemical weapons deal with the Assad government illustrates, this is an age in which diplomacy, not the use of force, is the last resort.

The Assad government’s contempt for its own citizens has collided with sectarian tensions and the fanaticism of religious zealots to make life in much of Syria ever more “nasty, brutish, and short.” The struggle almost immediately ceased to be purely between Syrians. It quickly expanded to a set of zero-sum contests that pit Iran against Saudi Arabia, Russia against the United States, and Hezbollah against takfiri jihadists. None of these parties has any incentive to compromise. Some may be genuinely anguished by what is happening in Syria — or, at least, to those Syrians with whom they sympathize. But, in practice, each prefers continued combat to any outcome favoring an opponent. So concerned governments have blocked all efforts at promoting either a diplomatic solution or an effective humanitarian response to the situation. When they have not been funneling weapons to the various parties in Syria or training them to kill each other, they have wrung their hands while sitting on them.

No one has clean hands in Syria. It is not clear who is responsible for what, but it is clear who is suffering from it. At some point, the mayhem in Syria will end. Whether it will do so before it catalyzes the dismemberment of Lebanon and Iraq or the destabilization of Jordan is an open question. But the strife in Syria will end. Who will then pick up the pieces and reconstruct a civilized society for Syrians and their neighbors? Will there be educated Syrians to do this? Will enough of the humane values of Syria’s ancient culture have survived to flower again?

UNICEF reports that at present about half of Syria’s school-age population — “nearly 3 million children in Syria and in neighboring countries are unable to go to school on a regular basis.” There is no point in waiting for foreign governments and organizations to do what must be done to save the next generation of Syrians from illiteracy, ignorance, and incompetence. In one form or another, the three Abrahamic religions all counsel, in the words of God in the Holy Quran, that “to kill any person who has not committed murder or horrendous crimes is like murdering all of mankind, but to save a life is like saving all of humanity.” That is a call to action not to be refused.

Ladies and gentlemen, the vision of the Al Madad Foundation is a Middle East “where basic education and literacy are accessible to all, where young minds are cultivated, and where children are given the tools to build positive futures for themselves and for those around them.” The Foundation needs help to save the lives of the children of the Levant and rescue them from abuse and neglect. Every child that the Foundation reaches is a potential contributor to a reborn society once the current madness is past us. Educating as many of the next generation of Syrians as possible to be able to meet the challenges before them is, I submit, an urgent cause that is worthy of our support. It has mine. Does it have yours?

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)

London, England

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