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Will the world respond to Syria's humanitarian disaster?

When Bashar al-Assad’s predecessor as Syria’s president, his father Hafez, sent tanks and troops into Hama 30 years ago, there was neither You Tube nor smart phones. That is why he got away with the massacre of more than 10,000 of his fellow Syrians in that city, one of the most horrific man-made humanitarian disasters in recent Middle East history. Hafez continued to rule with impunity until his death in 2000.

Today, with a variety of modern mass communications tools, reports and images of Bashar’s ferocious war against the Syrian people are conveyed in real time around the world. The pace of killings has so accelerated in recent weeks that the UN had to acknowledge the impossibility of keeping track of the totals murdered and injured, let alone the detained and tortured.

This past week Syrian forces stepped up the siege of Homs, the country’s third largest city. Bashar has shown that nothing will deter him. Homs was pummeled, and the body count rose into the hundreds even as the UN Security Council met last Saturday. The ferocious assault continued after China and Russia teamed up to veto any UN action.

Assad didn’t even have the courtesy to turn off what Qatar’s prime minister has called the Syrian “killing machine” while Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was visiting Damascus on Tuesday. And Russia’s leaders remain impervious to the regime’s continuing assaults and the deepening humanitarian crisis.

Nadav Pillay, the outspoken UN human rights chief, has consistently called attention to Assad’s human rights abuses, and urged the Security Council to refer him to the International Criminal Court

This week she reminded world leaders that in 2005 the UN General Assembly adopted the “Responsibility to Protect” resolution, a guide for responding to situations where a country’s population is threatened by a bloodthirsty regime. 

The landmark document emerged out of intense international soul-searching following the 1994 Rwanda genocide and the 1995 massacre of 8,000 Bosnians in Srebrenica. While years too late for Hama’s victims, it should be employed now as the citizens of Homs and other Syrian cities face a similar fate.

Calls for delivering urgent humanitarian assistance to Syria are not new. Last November, France attempted to mobilize UN members. “The idea is to give the Syrian regime an ultimatum so that it meets its international obligations to allow access to humanitarian aid,” said Foreign Minister Alain Juppé, who sought to establish humanitarian corridors, perhaps via Turkey or Lebanon, to provide aid.

Now there is talk of the U.S. setting up a “friends of Syria” coalition that would include several European and Arab countries as well as Turkey, to establish a mechanism for providing basic humanitarian aid, even as other measures are contemplated to increase the pressure on Assad to step down.

As things stand, frightened Syrians of all ages wait in vain for shelter from their own government’s marauding forces. The same unconscionable obstacles that prevented UN Security Council diplomatic action also block humanitarian aid.

To deliver food, medicine and other urgently needed supplies requires cooperative partners on the ground in Syria. At present, the Syrian opposition to Assad is diffuse, disorganized, and often not in control of defined areas.

In Assad’s cruel worldview, allowing humanitarian aid would constitute an admission that there indeed is a crisis in his country and that its victims are not the “terrorists” and “foreign provocateurs” that he has long claimed want to harm and undermine the Syrian nation.

And then there is Russia, which continues to arm Assad’s forces and block UN action. Will Moscow facilitate the provision of strictly humanitarian supplies to Syrians, or will it take the view that such aid is another form of “interference” in Syria?

Russia’s outrageous stance ignores the current humanitarian crisis as well as the long-term needs that will have to be met after Assad falls. 

In the coming days the Syrian people will know if and how the countries that proclaim to be friends will deliver.

Kenneth Bandler is the American Jewish Committee’s Director of Media Relations.

Kenneth Bandler is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.