The Syria Gas Attack Was Bad — But It's Not the Worst Thing That's Happened There

Pundits discuss the feasibility and credibility of the Russian plan to secure and dispose of Syria’s chemical weapons, with some remaining skeptical as others choose to be optimistic. But as this debate continues, people shouldn’t forget the scale of humanitarian crisis in Syria since before the use of chemical weapons began — nor should they forget that this crisis will continue no matter how the chemical-weapons question is resolved. If the international community, including the U.S., has been calling for intervention in Syria for humanitarian reasons, it should remember that resolving the chemical-weapons issue does not eliminate the real problem.

On August 20, 2012, President Obama set his so-called “red line” regarding a military intervention in Syria should chemical weapons be used in the ongoing civil war. Now, although it is widely accepted that this red line has been crossed, the world awaits the preceding action of the U.S. as talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov for a diplomatic solution continue. Will the Syrian people be absolved of their pain should Assad give up his chemical weapons? The reality is far from it. The chemical attack in Ghouta has reportedly caused 500-1,300 deaths. But massacres have been taking place in Syria on a daily basis since the beginning of the civil war in 2011, having killed approximately 100,000.

More and more people are forced to take arms and join the battle on the ground every day. “Our Mother Aisha,” a group of Syrian schoolteachers who have formed an all-female rebel force fighting against the regime in Aleppo, is only one example. Oum Omar, a member of Our Mother Aisha, explained to Al Jazeera, “It’s the level of despair that the rebels reached, that pushed us to join them on the front lane.” Today they are fighting alongside the al Tawheed Brigade, a unit of the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front. Khalida, another female warrior from the Free Syrian Army, said to Al Jazeera, “I decided to carry a weapon because there is no place for peace anymore if our children are being killed. People have had enough.” Average citizens in Syria today feel they have no choice left but to the join the fight, on one side or another.

Others? There are currently more than 2 million Syrian peoples of concern, mostly refugees, either registered or awaiting registration in bordering countries including Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. These are the people who have been forced to leave their homes in order to protect their and their families’ lives. In her article, Shelly Martin writes the stories of a refugee family in Turkey: “The severed heads of Syrian soldiers were lined up on one side of a high school gymnasium and bodies on the other, so that families were forced to piece them together for burial. One of the girls around my age pulls up a picture of an emaciated man on her cell phone, describing her brother-in-law’s 50-day imprisonment in a government jail. He was forced to wear the same t-shirt and pants with no shower the entire time. Maggots had eaten parts of his skin and his beard was snarled and uneven.” The memories of men, women, and children who have escaped from their homes are filled with images and voices of brutalities inflicted on their loved ones. Martin writes about her encounter with another Syrian woman in Turkey, eight months pregnant: “She looks me straight in the eye with her ash-colored orbs expressing a striking combination of desperation and resignation. She asks me to tell my country 'Do not forget Syria.' I aim to honor her request.” I do, too.

Not only have the lives of these Syrians been irreparably disrupted, these refugees continue to affect the lives of those already living in areas where they settle, increasing ethnic and sectarian tensions as well as raising security concerns. In Lebanon, the crisis has been heightening sectarian tensions between the Shia and Sunni populations, as well as the political polarization between Hezbollah and the Future Movement, which belong to different sects of Shia and Sunni Islam respectively and have been supporting opposite sides in the conflict accordingly. In Turkey, not only have the incoming Sunni Syrian refugees raised tensions between the Sunni and Alawite Turkish populations in border provinces such as in Hatay, the role of Syrian Kurdish opposition in the crisis further complicates Turkey’s own Kurdish question.

Many people, American and foreigners alike, are vehemently opposed to the U.S. acting as the “world police.” After all, why should it be the burden of Americans whenever a humanitarian crisis occurs? I agree, more so than many readers might believe. But whatever our opinions may be, the reality stands that U.S. has for several decades acted as one with several interventions on a range of issues, including in the Middle East. The U.S., militarily, is the most powerful country in this world, spending significantly more money on its military than any other. The U.S. has also been the loudest country in voicing concern over humanitarian crises worldwide, and the desire to eliminate them. So how can the U.S. simply stand and watch the crisis in Syria from afar? The humanitarian crisis is there in Syria, whether Assad gives up the chemical weapons or not.