If the United States fails to stand up against war criminals, what does that say about who we are as a nation? And what example does that set for other nations? America is a beacon of hope for those seeking freedom around the world, and as such, we have a responsibility to continue fulfilling that mission for generations to come.
In the news cycle today, between the mudslinging and partisan rhetoric, bipartisanship is under-reported and often believed to be an impossible feat. But in reality, Democrats and Republicans reach across the aisle every single day in Congress. And we should know, as we represent two different political parties who work together on an important issue that is also severely under-reported: the crisis in Syria.
March marks nine years since the protests began and war broke out in Syria in 2011. Before the war began, Syria's population was estimated to be 21 million. In 2016, it was estimated that half a million Syrians had been killed while nearly 13 million were displaced. Another staggering statistic? More than 2 million children have been deprived of an education. Life in Syria has changed drastically, and children are growing up with a barrage of bombings that has reduced their homes and communities to rubble.
Over the last two months, the Syrian regime — backed by Russia and Iran — launched an offensive on Idlib that has taken many lives and forced over half a million people to flee. Innocent people are running for their lives with nowhere to go, while thousands of others continue to suffer as prisoners of Bashar Assad’s death camps in Damascus. This crisis in Syria deserves our attention and our action.
As the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has said, what’s happening in Syria is “the greatest humanitarian and refugee crisis of our time.” The ongoing genocide perpetrated by Assad’s regime is aided by his backers in Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. The attacks are gruesome, barbaric, and inhumane.
As members of Congress, we’re passionate about this issue and joined together to create the Friends of a Free, Stable and Democratic Syria Caucus. This bipartisan effort began in 2017 with a goal to raise awareness about what’s happening in the country, monitor regional events, and advocate for policies that help the Syrian people.
As co-chairs, we’ve had tremendous opportunities to bring in advocates, survivors of Assad’s brutality, and others who shed light on the human impact of these atrocities. This year, we hosted screenings on Capitol Hill for two powerful documentaries on the horrors that continue in Syria today. Both "The Cave" and "FOR SAMA" received Oscar nominations this year, and if you’ve watched them, you’ll certainly know why.
In "The Cave," director Feras Fayyad tells the story of a young woman operating an underground hospital inside the besieged city of Al Ghouta. As the first woman to serve as director of a Syrian hospital, Dr. Amani Ballour leads a group of doctors and nurses who voluntarily risk their own lives to save their fellow Syrians. In addition to a shortage of food and medicine, the underground facility known as "The Cave" also lacks enough space for the many victims of regime and Russian barrel bomb attacks. The film crew impressively documented this issue during a gruesome chemical attack in March 2018.
Throughout the film, Amani inspires with her perseverance through difficult times and her leadership in encouraging staff to stay positive for the kids. Their dedication to the children is what stood out the most. As we know, the future of Syria depends on this next generation. And without hope or opportunity, that future will look increasingly grim for the people of Syria and the international community.
The documentary "FOR SAMA" shows the impact of one woman’s decision to stay and fight for her community during the war. Waad al-Kateab films her life from the moment she joins her first peaceful protest in 2011 to the happenings in her life over the next five years as she endures escalating violence in Aleppo. Through love, marriage, and motherhood, Kateab embodies the humanity of a mother eager to fight for her country and show her daughter the home she once knew was a place worth fighting for. This film reminds us that while some like Kateab and her family were forced to flee, other families never had the chance — and that their suffering continues.
As the onslaught continues in Idlib, we know we must address the humanitarian crisis in Syria and hold those responsible accountable for their war crimes. Targeting hospitals and medical personnel is abhorrent and unconscionable. According to the nonprofit organization Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), there have been 589 documented attacks on medical facilities since the war started in March 2011. And of those, PHR has determined that Assad’s Syria and Putin’s Russia are responsible for 90 percent of the attacks.
Last year, we introduced a resolution condemning the senseless attacks on hospitals and medical personnel in Syria, calling on all parties to end the airstrikes. The resolution directs the secretary of state to work with the international community to conduct investigations into these violations of international humanitarian law. But more must be done.
Without question, the international community must wake up to the reality in Syria. We cannot turn a blind eye to the images we see of destruction and death from barrel bomb attacks in Idlib, and we cannot turn off the videos of children gasping for their last breath after a chemical weapon was dropped on their playground in Eastern Ghouta. We cannot continue to look the other way as Assad and his backers continue their genocide in Syria.
Documentaries like "The Cave" and "FOR SAMA" show stories of very real people facing unimaginable horrors. Through these films, we see a mother fighting for her daughter’s future, a father missing his family, a child feeling hopeless without her parents, a woman celebrating her 30th birthday with uncertainty. We feel that human element, connecting with the people featured in these documentaries in some small way. That human connection is paramount as we continue to implore the world to stand against Assad’s genocide and stand up for Syria.
Rep. Brendan Boyle has represented Pennsylvania as a Democrat in the United States House since 2019. He sits on the House Committee on Ways and Means and the Committee on the Budget.