Argument

Syria's House of Cards

After two years, 1 million refugees, and more than 70,000 dead, some Syrians -- and one American president -- are still looking to protect their own interests rather than save a country.

Over a kebab dinner in the Turkish city of Iskenderun, Syrian physician and cleric Mahmoud al-Husseini explained why he has not yet visited the Atmeh refugee camp in northern Syria, just 55 miles south from where he now lived. "I'm too famous, I don't want to go to be photographed," he explained.

It sounded like a cop-out. Husseini is the former head of Aleppo's religious endowment, and although he left the country in the summer of 2011, he still boasts wide influence inside Syria. But this influence remained untapped. He says that he considers those who visit the camps to be "revolution celebrities," merely looking for the next photo op with a poor Syrian refugee child. So he avoids getting involved altogether.

Like many Syrians, Husseini has strong yet contradictory opinions on the disaster unfolding across the border. He believes that the Syrian opposition in exile is controlled by foreign agendas and paid off with "political money," and was convinced that the crisis could end with a single threatening "phone call from President Obama." Yet, he also holds that it's not time yet to counter the growing sectarianism within the ranks of the opposition fighters, because "the killing had to stop first."

And his plan to solve the bloody crisis? Forming yet another Syrian opposition group. He claims his exclusive group, the "Building Civilization Movement," is made up of 100 of the most important Syrian political and social figures in the country. He could only give one name, however, out of those elusive hundred. What was their plan? And why would he not announce the names? His answer: "They will be burned." (Figuratively, of course.)

It's a common response in Syria these days. Uncertain about how this bloody, two-year revolt will play out, many Syrians have essentially decided not to decide on their stance toward the conflict. When asked to give their reason, they repeat the same sentence: "I don't want my cards to be burned." Many prominent Syrians are sitting on the fence, waiting for the right moment to get involved -- but only when it is clear their personal interests will be protected.

The "don't burn your cards" saying became a joke between our group of Syrian journalists, writers, and activists as we moved back and forth across the Syrian-Turkish border area in January to meet with rebel fighters, refugees, and politicians. If you do "fill-in-the-blank," we would laugh, then you will burn your cards. This action could be almost anything -- take a picture with a refugee child, announce your true political beliefs, go into Syria, don't go into Syria.

And it's true -- in Syria's high-stakes political climate, certain choices define you: Do you support foreign intervention or not? Do you support arming the rebels or not? Do you support the bloody tactics of the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra or not? Even the distribution of humanitarian aid leads to a slew of questions: Why give money to the refugees when you should be helping people inside? Why help refugees in Jordan's Zaatari camp when you should be helping the displaced people in the camps inside Syria?

Hard-edged questions like these continue to fracture the Syrian opposition. Over the past month, the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC), the internationally recognized opposition umbrella group, has been on a roller-coaster ride of statements and counter-statements, bold boycotts and instant reversals of boycotts. The Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Syrian National Council (SNC), the majority bloc within the coalition, has repeatedly undermined the group's plans to break the political stalemate between Assad and the opposition -- revealing personal interests taking precedence over national ones.

Last week, for instance, coalition leader Moaz al-Khatib announced a last-minute boycott of a "Friends of Syria" summit in Rome in protest of the Scud missile attacks on Aleppo, which left scores dead and leveled residential neighborhoods. When U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry personally requested the coalition's presence and promised increased American support, Khatib changed his position. But the SNC resolved to uphold the boycott, leaving the coalition leader to attend alone and once again exposing a divided opposition front.

Khatib and the SNC have also sparred over the coalition leader's unilateral initiative --announced on his Facebook page -- to open negotiations with the regime. Some Syrians viewed the initiative as a sign of weakness, while others believed that beginning the dialogue process was the only way to move forward. But behind the scenes, it seems that some of the SNC's public outrage was just a show for the public. As one senior Syrian political activist confided, in explaining opposition to the plan: "Many in the coalition were afraid their cards would burn if they had openly backed Moaz al-Khatib's dialogue initiative."

Responses like these show that Syria's emerging political personalities are still riding their 15 minutes of media fame. They jet from conference to conference, proudly announcing this statement or that boycott as major accomplishments. Rather than working together, they snipe at each other on Arabic satellite news channels and social media. These ugly debates further disconnect the opposition from the very people they claim to represent.

Some Syrians are beginning to lose patience with this charade, and have begun harshly questioning the incompetence of their supposed leaders. Former U.N. official Samir Shishakli has sharply criticized both Khatib's habit of bypassing the coalition and the undermining tactics of his rivals. On Feb. 4, he posted a scathing critique of the state of the political opposition on his popular blog: "I can't imagine this new low that the opposition has sunk to, functioning without considering the revolution, despite their claim that the revolution is the only source of legitimacy," he wrote.

To be fair, Syria's anti-Assad forces face a conundrum. The overwhelming likelihood is that, in the short-term, the political opposition in exile will remain in exile. Asking it to establish its headquarters inside Syria while Assad's Scud missiles continue to target the north is a request to sign a mass suicide note.

And so we reach the Arab Spring cliché once again: Syria is not Libya. Without a protected zone inside Syria, it will be impossible to forge a united political and military opposition. Nevertheless, despite the difficulties, various opposition coalition members periodically enter northern Syria under rebel protection -- Khatib himself made a surprise visit to the town of Minbej in early March. The coalition has also taken a larger role in distributing humanitarian aid, assisting local civil councils and monitoring elections for local governments.

The discord, of course, is not only confined to the Syrian opposition. Over the last few weeks, disagreements between top officials in Washington over what to do -- or not to do -- in Syria have come to light. The heads of the CIA, State Department, and Defense Department agreed many months ago that the United States should arm the moderate rebel groups. But in the heat of his reelection campaign, Obama disagreed. An estimated 20,000 people have died since then --providing a stark reminder that the U.S. policy of inaction has real consequences.

How will Syria shape the legacy that Obama leaves behind? The Nobel Peace Prize-winning president may write off his inaction during what will later be called "the Syrian years" with a few lines of regret in his future memoir, but those lines will not erase the tragic fact that there were thousands of lives that could have been saved -- but weren't, because of an election, or a close ally's interests.

Meanwhile, the Syrian regime, as well as its loyalists and allies, has been steadfastly implementing only one strategy: Assad or we burn the country. The procrastination of the opposition's supposed international allies has given Assad time -- time to strategically leave Syrian borders open to the wolves at the door, who rushed in armed with weapons and ideologies foreign to the diverse fabric of Syrian society. Time to kill more Syrians.

And so Assad burned card after Syrian card, along with innocent people, children, homes, and cities. Along the way, he burned the cards of justice, liberty, and dignity held by hundreds of original revolutionaries like Kurdish leader Mashaal Tammo, young pacifist Ghiyath Matar, and leftist intellectual Omar Aziz.

Despite the international community's dismal track record so far, one cannot help but hope that this time, just maybe, someone will decide it's time to do the right thing. It's time to end the murdering of a country. It's time to use all the cards available -- to negotiate and to fight, to move the political opposition into a protected zone within Syria, to deliver aid to the people suffering from hunger, cold, and disease, to fight sectarianism and extremism, and to shake off the world's apathetic, paralyzing ambivalence. That would be a legacy that everyone from Husseini to Obama could be proud of.

Time is running out on Syria. Time has already run out for more than 70,000 Syrians. Two cruel years unfolded in front of our eyes -- and we still worry about legacy and personal interests, about power, about saving face and political feuds. We still worry about the worthless cards we clutch to our chest while hundreds of Syrians die every single week.

Burn the cards. It's time to go all in. 

Pablo Tosco/AFP/Getty Images

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