Mohammed Alaa Ghanem is the senior political adviser and government relations director for the Syrian American Council in Washington, a board member of the Coalition for a Democratic Syria and a fellow at the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
Recently, schoolchildren in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo prepared an art presentation that provided a creative outlet and a respite from their war-torn surroundings. Some children drew cheerful scenes of birds carrying the Syrian flag on a sunny day. Others depicted traumatic scenes of war they had witnessed. One drew Aleppo’s iconic citadel.
On April 30, a barrel bombing demolished the school just hours before the exhibit was set to open. A number of children were killed before they could present their work. Others who were “luckier” spent a day they had eagerly anticipated in agonizing pain, under intensive medical care.
Americans might be interested to know that the U.S. flag was a repeated motif at the ill-fated exhibit. Drawings showed Old Glory atop a house with inviting yellow windows, on the body of a bird soaring toward a hilltop and above a young girl smiling with outstretched arms.
These Syrian children admire the United States. In the midst of a horrifying war, they look to America with hope and expectation. Have we fulfilled their hopes for the type of secure childhood that most Americans take for granted?
According to the Syrian National Council, at least 20,000 people have been killed in “barrel bomb” attacks since anti-government protests in Syria began in March 2011. These devices are large containers filled with explosives and shrapnel that, when dropped from high altitudes, explode upon impact and cause massive destruction. Since the Assad regime has a monopoly on airpower, it is the only party capable of deploying barrel bombs.
U.N. Security Council Resolution 2139 demands an end to “indiscriminate employment of weapons in populated areas, including shelling and aerial bombardment, such as the use of barrel bombs.” The resolution, passed on Feb. 22, 2014, marked a rare moment of unanimity on Syria from the Security Council.
But barrel bomb attacks have continued unabated. According to Human Rights Watch, the Assad regime has unleashed barrel bombs on at least 85 distinct locations in Aleppo City since Feb. 22. The Syrian Network for Human Rights estimates over 920 deaths due to barrel bombings between Feb. 22 and April 22.
Resolution 2139 included the threat of “further steps” if its provisions were not abided by. But U.N. spokesmen have stated that any further action would require a Chapter 7 mandate from the Security Council — where Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s staunch ally Russia holds veto power. Unless the United States is willing to act outside the U.N. framework, it consigns children across Syria to the horrors of barrel bombings.
It would not take much for the United States to make a difference. A man whose neighborhood has endured numerous barrel bombings reports that after one regime helicopter was shot down by opposition forces, all attacks from the air ceased for 15 days. So a slight increase in the opposition’s capacity to target helicopters could have an enormous payoff in lives saved.
For this reason, Syrian opposition representatives have repeatedly requested the transfer of anti-aircraft weapons to moderate rebel groups. Syrian Opposition Coalition head Ahmad al-Jarba is making his first visit to Washington this week specifically to make this appeal to President Obama and the American public. Numerous media reports have indicated that the White House is reconsidering its previous refusal to furnish Syria’s opposition with man-portable air defense systems, or MANPADS.
MANPADs are portable, shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles that would enable Syrian rebel groups to target regime aircraft. A major objection to their provision has been that terrorist groups could later obtain them and use them against civilian airliners. Administration officials are currently studying technological fixes such as fingerprint-keyed security locks, GPS tracking and “kill switches” that could instantly disable the devices.
Often lost in the MANPADS debate is that the weapons are already in wide circulation, including among terrorists. In 2004, the U.S. Government Accountability Office estimated that around 6,000 MANPADS were in the hands of hostile non-state organizations. The intelligence firm Stratfor in 2010 included among these organizations al-Qaeda, Shabab, Hezbollah and the PKK.
As few as 20 MANPADS distributed to moderate Syrian rebel groups would make Assad regime pilots think twice before agreeing to decimate civilian areas through barrel bombings. And the added risk to civilian airliners would be extremely small, especially if the MANPADS were outfitted with the technological fixes under discussion.
For the sake of the thousands of Syrians killed or injured by barrel bombings — including schoolchildren in Aleppo who believed in the United States — we ask the American people to assume this risk and support the provision of MANPADS to carefully vetted elements of the Syrian opposition.