To salvage Syria talks, US must confront Russia

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The prospects for successful peace talks to end the horrific conflict in Syria are in serious jeopardy because the Syrian government and their Russian accomplices smell blood.

In the run-up to the Geneva negotiations, ongoing attacks on civilians and restrictions on humanitarian access stand in gross violation of the U.N. Security Council resolution in December that called for the start of a peace process. Russia, especially, has increased the scope and lethality of its attacks on civilians, something one of us (Dr. Sahloul) witnessed on a just-completed trip to Syria. On the ground there earlier this month, one could glimpse the toll of the daily rampage of Russian jets in the towns of Marr'a, Ariha and Sarakeb in the governorates of Idlib and Aleppo.

The military result of this bludgeoning is a more confident Syrian government and one whose gains as a result of the assaults may give them little reason to yield.
In his final State of the Union speech a week ago, President Obama touted the success of his Syria strategy and held up America's role in seeking "a lasting peace" without mentioning these ongoing attacks on civilians. Obama's failure to forcefully address Russian misconduct not only demonstrates a reluctance to speak the truth but could also undermine the very talks his own diplomatic team is working feverishly to preserve. Syrian opposition groups have threatened to boycott negotiations, and who can blame them when civilians remain targets and are allowed to die for lack of aid? Even if they do participate, U.S. reticence has dramatically weakened their position.

A year ago, we reported on the impact of Syria's attacks on doctors, nurses and healthcare facilities. We urged the United States to impose a humanitarian buffer zone in northern and southern Syria. Doing so, we said, would allow healthcare workers — such as those we had interviewed in Turkey — to save lives. Children could then be vaccinated and go to school, refugees could resettle and relief organizations could do their work.

The buffer zone was not imposed, and the Assad regime — aided in its destruction by Russia — ramped up its campaign against healthcare personnel. About twice every week in 2015, Syrian air and artillery attacks hit medical facilities, more than 100 attacks in all, according to Physicians for Human Rights. As Doctors Without Borders and the Syrian American Medical Society reported, Russian jets since the fall have bombed and destroyed more than 12 hospitals throughout Syria, killing and injuring scores of patients and healthcare professionals.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights reports that more than 832 civilians have been killed by Russian bombing, including 199 children and 109 women. Russian cluster bombs are still a weapon of choice, in defiance of Security Council demands.

The result of these attacks, along with Iranian troop movements, has been displacement of more than 300,000 Syrian civilians in Aleppo, Latakia, Idlib and Daraa, where the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — the focus of U.S. strategy in Syria — has no presence. These actions by Syria's allies have added to the 7 million internally displaced people and 4.3 million refugees, 1 million of whom have fled to Europe.

Meanwhile, the Syrian government continues to obstruct humanitarian aid, also in violation of Security Council resolutions. The pictures of emaciated people in the town of Madaya are just the beginning. More than half a million Syrians are estimated to remain under siege, dying a slow death for lack of food, water, medicine and shelter.

It is all well and good for Obama to say in his State of the Union message that the United States is "leading international efforts to help that broken society pursue a lasting peace," a recognition of Secretary of State John Kerry's continuing work. Ending the conflict is essential if death, destruction, suffering and the flow of refugees is to end and pave the way for a new, democratic Syria. But the peace process will not succeed unless he calls Russia to account for the carnage it continues to inflict on the Syrian people and insists that Moscow help to restrain the Syrian military's attacks on civilians and its blocking of humanitarian efforts.

As President Obama said when he accepted his Nobel Prize in 2009, inaction in protecting civilians "tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later." We have seen the truth of that statement again in the last month, as passivity has weakened the prospects for peace. Continued American deference to the long list of Russian depredations will only ensure our shame.

Sahloul is a critical care specialist in Chicago and former president of the Syrian American Medical Society. He is also a member of the advisory committee of the Center for Public Health and Human Rights at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. Rubenstein is the director of the Program on Human Rights, Health and Conflict at the Center for Public Health and Human Rights.

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