Rep. Kinzinger: After 5 years of war it’s time for decisive American leadership in Syria

I’ll never forget the young girl I met in September 2014 at a refugee camp in Iraq.  She had been displaced by the Syrian civil war and her parents had just been killed by ISIS militants.  At just 13-years old, she was responsible for herself and her younger brother with cerebral palsy.  Her life was changed forever, but the strength in her eyes and the fight in her heart has stuck with me ever since.

Over the years, the Syrian civil war has severely escalated and bled its way into headlines around the world.  Peace talks have broken down, and as a result, an increasing number of innocent Syrians are dying at the hands of the ruthless Bashar al-Assad regime.

The Syrian conflict is going on five years and counting with no signs of slowing down.  More than 400,000 Syrians are dead with over seven million displaced and nearly five million taking refuge in neighboring countries.

Recently, with the support of Assad’s Russian and Iranian backers, the men, women, and children of Aleppo and Madaya have been killed by indiscriminate bombings or from starvation.

All the while, ISIS continues to sweep through the region and maintain its power.

We cannot continue to stand by and believe our policies, or lack thereof, are actually working.  It is time for decisive American leadership in Syria.

In the last seven years, there has been a decline of American leadership around the globe, which can be seen in our aimless response to Syria.  In 2011, the President was very clear that Assad must go. 

In possession of chemical weapons, Assad ignored the calls for his resignation, to ‘step aside’ ‘for the sake of the Syrian people,’ and instead attacked his own people. The Ghouta chemical attack left innocent children gasping for their last breath, paralyzing their bodies until death released them from the pain. The strike killed nearly 1,500 people and left the world with the horrific images of this inhumane brutality.

Despite sound advice from his key national security advisors, President Obama chose not to support rebels with sufficient training and equipment to take on the Assad forces. The president failed to enforce the very red line he drew, showing that the administration is not necessarily focused on a regime change in their search for a diplomatic solution. 

Today, the situation in Syria is utter chaos with Assad forces, Russian planes, Iranian militias, and ISIS fighters killing civilians.

While it may be encouraging to think the recent ‘provisional cease-fire agreement’ will provide a temporary truce in ending the conflict in Syria, I’m not entirely convinced.  During the delays in the UN-mediated talks, Syrian forces, with Russian support, continued airstrikes that killed civilians and enclosed Aleppo in attempts to cut off vital supply routes for the moderate opposition and humanitarian aid for more than 300,000 residents. 

Given Russia’s involvement in the past and its interests in having Assad in power, we cannot honestly trust Russia or believe that a peaceful solution will hold.

Russian planes have bombed hospitals, classrooms, and other civilian targets.  This targeting is a gross violation of international law and not the behavior of a country interested in a peaceful solution in Syria.  President Obama attempted to work with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in 2012 to put an end to violence in Syria.  When a deal could not be reached, the Obama administration should have recognized the true nature of the Russian agenda.  I honestly believe Russia is interested in rebuilding the Soviet empire and propping up their dictators in the Middle East.  This ceasefire allows Assad to stay in power – and there is no future for Syria with Assad and his brutal regime in control.

Rather than kowtowing to Russian demands, the United States should exert leadership in Syria.  The United States needs to employ a no-fly zone or create a safe zone in order to protect civilians from further barrel bombing attacks. 

As a member of the U.S. Air Force, I flew jets in Iraq and Afghanistan and I know that a no-fly zone could go a long way towards protecting civilians.  It would also open up the routes for humanitarian supplies to reach those in need and stem the flow of asylum-seeking refugees.  The status quo is not sustainable anymore.

President Bill Clinton once said that the greatest regret of his presidency was inaction in Rwanda. I fear that our greatest regret, both for this president and this Congress, will be inaction in Syria.  Whether it’s chemical weapons attacks, sniper attacks, starvation, or refugees drowning on their way to safety, the reality is that ordinary Syrians and Syrian children are dying at the hands of Bashar al-Assad, Ayatollah Khamenei, and Vladimir Putin.

I believe America was created with a fundamental mission to be an example for human dignity and strength.

As the U.S. forgets this mission, the door is open for others to fill the void, which leads to disastrous results for the global community. 

When it comes to Syria, we cannot continue to employ a listless response and allow civilians to suffer under the barbarism of Assad. 

If we do not live up to our moral obligation as Americans to employ strong global leadership, history will judge us on our inaction.