What Can Be Done to Save the Syrian Rebels?

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People to be evacuated from a rebel-held sector of eastern Aleppo, Syria, on Thursday. Giulio Maria Terzi writes that the Western world bears shameful responsibility for the present state of Syria, and we are running out of time to make up for our past mistakes. But it is still possible to make it clear to Tehran that it will face serious financial and political consequences for its nefarious role in Syria. Abdalrhman Ismail/reuters

With the city of Aleppo now almost completely overrun by forces loyal to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, social media has made the carnage obvious. Western politicians cannot claim to have not known about it.

They saw the footage of poor Syrian children running for cover, mothers crying for their loved ones, indiscriminate bombings. And the response: No action. Total indifference. This will go down in history as the shame of global policymakers.

The moderate and pro-democracy rebel groups have effectively lost one of their main strongholds. It is important to note, however, that they have not surrendered their cause. Spokespersons for the rebels have defiantly insisted that their demands remain.

These include not only the ouster of the Assad government but also the removal of foreign influence from their country, chiefly that of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its militant proxies.

In charting a course for the future, it is important to recognize what happened. It is important to remember that in the first months of this nearly six-year war, the opposition made great strides and Assad appeared to be on the verge of being forced from power. In a direct competition between popular discontent and government repression, popular discontent wins.

Related: Michael Rubin: Will Trump turn a blind eye to tyranny?

Trouble only emerged for the anti-Assad movement when his foreign allies began to directly involve themselves in the conflict, arming and resupplying pro-government forces and ultimately building them up with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), with Hezbollah and other Shiite militant groups, and with mercenaries recruited by Iran from Afghani and Pakistani refugee communities.

But even then, the real turning point only came after Russia moved beyond merely supporting the Assad regime financially and logistically, and began a campaign of bombings that overwhelmingly focused on the moderate rebels instead of ISIS militants.

It was Iran that convinced Russia to join the conflict, and thus it was Iran that chiefly orchestrated Assad’s victories. Shortly before the Russian bombing began, Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ (IRGC) Quds Force, visited Moscow to discuss plans for the future of Syria.

Suleimani’s trip was an outright violation of United Nations resolutions, as he had been banned from international travel due to his well known support for and participation in terrorist activities. Yet neither he nor his handlers in Tehran, nor his Russian hosts faced any consequences for this disregard of international law, as Western powers feared jeopardizing the nuclear deal. Western lack of interest gave Tehran and Moscow a carte blanche for the massacre of defenseless Syrians.   

Long before Aleppo came to be overrun by pro-Assad forces, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, presided over by Maryam Rajavi, revealed the center of the Iranian regime’s activity near Aleppo. It was headquartered in Fort Behuth, 35 kilometers southeast of the city.

The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) identified IRGC Brigadier General Seyed Javad Ghafari as the commander of IRGC forces near Aleppo, who had held meetings with Suleimani, still defying the U.N. resolutions, and also with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrollah and with Bashar al-Assad himself.

The NCRI report also pointed out that Fort Behuth included separate command centers for the IRGC and for Hezbollah, that it had specific sections for a number of different militant proxy groups and that soldiers and officers of the Syrian military were also present at the base. The report was significant as a snapshot of the forces that are clearly carrying out systematic crimes against humanity in conquered territory.

Syrian civilians have reached Western audiences with horrific accounts of summary executions, including those of women, minors, doctors and so on. It is horrifying to think that anyone in the free, democratic nations of Europe and North America could stand by and let this happen, but that is what we have all been doing.

This is made worse by the fact that direct intervention may never have been necessary if we had simply taken appropriate measures to prevent the meddling of the Iranian regime.

When we ignored Suleimani’s visit to Moscow, we turned a blind eye to the legacy of international terrorism. When we ignored Iran’s participation in the conflict, we tacitly endorsed the export of the Islamic Republic’s vile record on human rights.

And not only that, the nations that sought to negotiate over the future of Syria even went so far as to reward Iran for its intervention by granting it a seat at the table. History is a good teacher if one learns from it. Indifference and inaction only embolden the perpetrators.

In the summer of 1988, 30,000 political prisoners, mainly activists of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MEK), were massacred across Iran. The reaction by the West was total silence. Now, many of the Iranian beneficiaries of that silence are masterminds of the atrocities in Aleppo, with Russia as their accomplice.

The Western world bears shameful responsibility for the present state of Syria, and we are running out of time to make up for our past mistakes. But it is still possible to make it clear to Tehran that it will face serious financial and political consequences for its nefarious role in Syria.

It is still possible to return the conflict to its original state as a conflict between the popular will of the Syrian people and the isolated dictatorship in Damascus.

The tremendous visibility of the atrocities in Aleppo creates a clear opportunity to accomplish this goal. The international community can stop Tehran and Moscow by demanding action from the International Criminal Court and war crimes tribunal.

Civil organizations, dignitaries and NGOs must make these demands immediately, and without relent And they must shatter the silence that history will otherwise judge us by.

Giulio Terzi is a former foreign minister of Italy and a member of United Against Nuclear Iran’s Advisory Board.

Read more from Newsweek.com:

How Should Trump Tackle the Syrian Civil War?
Global Inaction Is Enabling the Brutal Destruction of Aleppo
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