Hundreds of thousands of Syrian children are refugees, having fled their war-torn nation with their families. Those still in Syria are susceptible to rebel and government attacks. They might even be gassed, a repugnant tactic that nearly every nation — but not Syria — agreed to outlaw after World War I.
Yet despite these children’s plight, most Americans don’t seem willing to help them. Televised images of children felled by fatal sarin gas on Aug. 21 haven’t moved them, leaving President Barack Obama, who has advocated targeted air strikes to weaken Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, struggling for congressional approval.
But now Secretary of State John Kerry has suggested, in an offhand remark picked up internationally, an alternative means to protecting Syrian children and all Syrian citizens from further chemical attacks. He said during a Monday press conference that “if” Syria simply handed over its chemical weapons to the international community within a week, it could avoid strategic air strikes. State Department officials said the comment was not intended as a diplomatic offer, but it’s being widely embraced.
And why not? The proposal makes sense, especially because it gives Assad, who has steadfastly denied having used gas against his own people, an “out,” while at the same time heading off the risk of further chemical attacks.
Currently Syria is one of only five nations that have not joined the Chemical Weapons Convention, a treaty on prohibiting them. But the opprobrium of the world that’s attached to the use of gas is a fearsome risk. Assad would be wise to act on this opportunity to divest Syria of any chemical weapons it possesses.
Until now Russia — Syria’s closest, most powerful ally — has resisted all attempts to urge Assad to cease attacking his own citizens. But Russian officials are endorsing this plan, and urging the Assad government to accept it.
It might be foolish to hang hope on a chance remark. But the president said during his Tuesday address to the nation that this new option was worth considering if it resulted in protecting Syria’s vulnerable population. By most estimates 100,000 Syrians have died in the 2-year-old conflict. Many more have fled. UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, has registered some 1,842,774 Syrian refugees now living in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Northern Africa, but cites a total of more than 2 million “persons of concern.” More than a quarter are children.
U.S. citizens are understandably reluctant to engage in yet another far-off conflict. At this juncture they should encourage their elected officials to support the Kerry proposal, giving Assad the opportunity to rid his nation of a particularly odious form of warfare. The proposal should take the form of a specific, binding, enforceable resolution.
This might represent the proverbial kicking the can down the road. Or it might be a breakthrough during a political and military impasse. But for the sake of those poor Syrian children, it’s worth a try.