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In Syria, is the worst yet to come? (OpEd)

August 24, 2018
In The News

Bashar al-Assad thinks he is winning.

The Syrian dictator, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, is responsible for the deaths of more than 500,000 people. UNICEF believes that a full quarter of civilian deaths have been children and minors.

Many Americans probably think that the war in Syria is over. That is, if they think about the war in Syria at all. But that is far from the case. 

Over the past few months, the Syrian government has been rapidly issuing death notices for political detainees, which confirm that many of the war's earliest detainees have been dead for years. 

Imagine the agony of families who have lived (if they have survived at all) for years believing their brothers, husbands, fathers or daughters might still be coming home, only to learn they've been long dead. 

The flurry of death notices from a usually tight-lipped government also sends an implied message to two audiences. Internally, it indicates to Assad's own people that resistance is futile. As the Washington Post noted, it signals "that it is time to move on while underscoring in grim fashion that he is firmly in control." 

But externally, this is a show of Assad's confidence that releasing previously undisclosed death tolls -- possibly tens of thousands of people -- will provoke little reaction from the rest of the world.

As devastating a humanitarian crisis as the Syrian war has been, resulting in not only a genocide of half a million people but also in the displacement of millions more, it seems the Assad regime isn't quite done. The worst might be yet to come. 

Last month, Assad told Russian media of a new offensive to conquer the crucial northwestern Idlib province, the Syrian opposition's last stronghold in the country.

The province is currently home to nearly three million people, many of whom have escaped other besieged territories. The coming campaign in Idlib could be among the worst yet, prompting the United Nations to warn this month of a potential "civilian bloodbath" that could send 700,000 Syrians across dangerous borders or into the unforgiving grip of the Assad regime.

If the 2016 Aleppo massacre — in which the Assad regime's assault claimed hundreds of civilian lives — was bad, this could be significantly worse.

It's not just because it will likely lead to untold numbers of casualties of innocent civilians, including children, though that's awful enough. It's because it will also result in a new refugee crisis in Europe and bordering states, already over-extended as a result of nearly eight years of Syrian diaspora.

There is also precedent for Assad's head fake. He trumpeted a "turning point" in the war back in April of 2014, praising his army's achievements. 

The following year, a refugee boy named Aylan Kurdi washed up on a beach in Turkey, symbolizing what authorities called the worst European refugee crisis since World War II. And one year after that, the months-long slaughter in Aleppo. 

Now Assad seems to be sending the message that he's won the war again. We shouldn't believe him.

He's presumably hoping no one will notice that the death toll continues to rise. But President Trump, who has repeatedly called for safe zones in Syria and has taken measured action against Assad's brutal chemical weapons attacks, should. And he should call for Assad to stand down on his Idlib offensive, not just for the safety of Syrian civilians but for all of Europe.

President Trump should also reconsider his stated desire to withdraw from Syria until Syrians have reached a political solution and ISIS is completely eradicated from the country. Pulling troops out any sooner would be dangerously premature.

Congress, too, must notice the ongoing devastation. In 2017 Democrats and Republicans introduced a bill called the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act that would impose new sanctions on Assad and his backers. It would also add support for the prosecution of war crimes over the course of this crisis. It passed the House unanimously and now it's time for the Senate to pass it and the President to sign it. 

Similarly, we, like so many others, are deeply troubled by President Trump's cancellation of more than $200 million in Syrian stabilization funds last week. Such funds are an important tool to complete the work of our armed service members who have fought ISIS alongside local partners.

ISIS has shown that it is capable of surviving defeats on the battlefield by breaking up into cells, melting into the population, and feeding on instability. Support for Syrian stabilization efforts is a low-cost method of denying ISIS part of its ability to regroup.

Estimates for the cost of rebuilding war-torn Syria are upwards of $200 billion. 

It's in everyone's interest to make Syria livable again for its millions of displaced families. But it should come with strings attached. The No Assistance for Assad Act, which the House passed in April, would deny Assad any of these reconstruction funds unless specific conditions, many involving the protection of human rights, are met. 

With important and competing news breaking in our own backyards, it's easy to see why Americans may have forgotten about the crisis in Syria.

But Assad has not and, make no mistake, he isn't done slaughtering his own people yet. It's too late to save the 500,000 who have already lost their lives, but it's not too late to stop the coming offensive in Idlib, which will, by all estimates, be horrific. 

Assad is hoping we don't care. We must prove him wrong.

Editor's Note:SE Cupp is a CNN political commentator and host of "SE Cupp Unfiltered." Suzanne Meriden is the executive director of the Syrian American Council. Adam Kinzinger is a US representative from Illinois' 16th congressional district. Brendan Boyle is a US representative from Pennsylvania's 13th congressional district. Reps. Kinzinger and Boyle are the co-chairs of the Friends of a Free, Stable and Democratic Syria Caucus. The opinions expressed in this commentary are theirs.