While we talk, Syrians die

It took chemical weapons to make the deaths of Syrian civilians matter to the rest of the world. Prior to the sarin gas attack near Damascus in August, more than 100,000 had died in the civil war, including many innocent civilians. After the chemical weapons attack, the deaths continued to mount — with more than 1,000 deaths during the recent week of negotiations between Russia and the U.S. to stop the use of chemical weapons on Syrians.

President Barack Obama has rightly singled out the use of chemical weapons as beyond any acceptable limits because of the great suffering these weapons inflict on victims. The chemical weapons ban should be applied to all, and those who have not yet declared their humanity by signing onto the ban should do so. Yet the discussion must rise above the cry of nations claiming their righteousness as signatories of the ban and instead must strive to seek a peaceful reconciliation of all parties in Syria.

"What we can do is make sure that the worst weapons, the indiscriminate weapons that don't distinguish between a soldier and an infant, are not used," President Barack Obama declared in an interview aired on Sept. 16, explaining why we single out chemical weapons. Yet bombs are also indiscriminate. And whether the bombs are dropped by Syrian President Bashar Assad, the Syrian opposition, radical al-Qaida affiliated groups, or Americans in an effort to stop Mr. Assad, innocents will die.

Now that Russia and the U.S. have made some headway in negotiations to stop the use of chemical weapons and to begin to secure them against further use, the pressure must be put on all parties to negotiate a ceasefire in the Syrian civil war. New Iranian President of Iran Hassan Rouhani has offered to mediate the two sides of the conflict in Syria. If the Obama administration, along with its allies, can agree to enforce the terms of the U.S.-Russia agreement on chemical weapons, the administration can also get the Russians to help us enforce a ceasefire. After two and a half years of war, with two million Syrian refugees, uncounted injured Syrians and a decimated state, there are no more excuses for stalling on a settlement. The U.S., Russia, France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar — and the rest of the nations that have cynically supported either side in hopes of gaining an upper-hand by exploiting Syria's version of the Arab Spring — must now come to terms with the newest low of this terrible conflict. Death by chemical weapons is abhorrent. But so is the death of any innocent, at any time. Without a negotiated settlement, Syrians can only look forward to more of this terrible same.

In his New York Times op-ed on Sept. 12, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the Syrian conflict, "fueled by foreign weapons supplied to the opposition, is one of the bloodiest in the world." Conveniently leaving out Russia's responsibility for providing support to Mr. Assad, Mr. Putin encouraged the U.S. to walk away from further military intervention. With the engagement and one-upmanship of both the U.S. and Russian presidents, perhaps we can encourage a new kind of competition — one that promotes peace and human dignity.

But first we must acknowledge that the public pronouncement of each of these presidents obscures the realities of the role each of their countries in ramping up this civil war. In fear of Chechen rebels using tactics learned in Syria alongside extremist opposition groups, Russia wishes to end the conflict before it poses any further risk to the Russian nation. In fear of chemical weapons getting in the hands of those who would use them on Americans, or our ally, Israel, Americans also see the wisdom of ending the conflict sooner, rather than later. The fears of the Russians and Americans are understandable.

But the fears of the Syrians? They continue to die while the rest of us talk about what we should do next.

Adil E. Shamoo (ashamoo@som.umaryland.edu) is an associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies, a senior analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus and the author of "Equal Worth — When Humanity Will Have Peace." Bonnie Bricker is a freelance writer.

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