Middle East Leaders are Failing the Syrian People – and the Region

Jasmine El-Gamal

“[We] no longer have the words to describe children’s suffering and our outrage.” That terse statement from Unicef, the UN children’s organization, following the massacre in Eastern Ghouta by Syrian government forces, said everything about helplessness in the face of unspeakable horror. For what words can possibly do justice to such a tragedy? Yet words do have importance, especially when they demonstrate intention. And in waiting days to make a statement after hundreds of innocent Syrians were slaughtered so mercilessly (with many yet to say anything), leaders in the Middle East have finally dropped any pretense that they care about the lives of people in the region. It is a cold, harsh and merciless worldview that foreshadows only further conflict at the expense of ordinary people aspiring to a normal life.

It has become abundantly clear that many of the region’s politicians and leaders have failed to learn the most basic of lessons: As long as they refuse to put the aspirations and rights of ordinary people above their own quest for dominance, the region will remain tragically unable to fulfill its potential. The international community outside the region will continue to be called upon to provide development assistance to compensate for decrepit health and education systems; to build military coalitions to fight terrorism that stems from an abundance of grievances; and, most importantly, to provide the massive funds needed to sustain refugees who have no place to call home and no peace of mind with which to rebuild their broken lives.

A virtual tour of the region illuminates a range of problems that will continue to undermine any potential for growth unless immediately addressed – from the inside.

In Egypt, a former military general and self-proclaimed defender against an Islamist takeover presides over a nation under severe social and economic strain and is preparing to run once again in an election now shorn of any credible opponent.

In Lebanon, a government in a near-constant state of paralysis watches as many young people leave their beloved country in disgust, sometimes after attempting in vain to address the corruption and incompetence that is all pervasive, and sometimes simply after realizing that their skills are of no use in a country that prizes the right allegiances over ability.

And even as Saudi Arabia attempts to reform its economy and civil society, it continues its showdown with Iran next door, with Yemeni civilians paying the ultimate price.

Iran itself fares no better. It has elected to utilize recently unfrozen assets from its nuclear deal with world powers to further fan the flames in Syria, thereby choosing to invest in foreign conflicts rather than address the aspirations of Iranians domestically.

And in Syria, a tragic, shameful, deliberate targeting of civilians continues with impunity because Bashar al Assad basks in the comfort of knowing that the West dares not confront Russia’s empowerment of the dictator. And so the tragedy continues.

The Middle East is a place where kindness, hospitality and resilience are in abundance. But most countries have not figured out how to harness that potential. And even those that have done so only acknowledge these traits in their own populations and invest accordingly, while either neglecting or outright perpetuating conflict with their neighbors. Wealthy Gulf states fail to understand that the shameful humanitarian disasters raging on their borders, and the inability of the region’s leaders to put an end to that massive human suffering, cannot and will not remain a distant thunder.

However, while it is late in the day, it is not too late to change the current course of the region.

For example, in Egypt, President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, unlikely to be challenged seriously by anyone in the upcoming elections, should use his now inevitable victory as a way not just to consolidate his own power, but as an opportunity to tackle perhaps the largest issue in need of attention: the crumbling education system in the country.

Next, more GCC countries should use some of their massive wealth to relieve the burden that poorer countries such as Jordan and Lebanon are bearing when it comes to Syrian refugees. The strain these refugee-hosting countries are under is untenable and must be addressed. To fail to do so will have unfathomable consequences in the future.

Third, both the GCC and Iran should recognize that it will become increasingly difficult to avoid conflict without reversing course on their overly belligerent rhetoric. Such a conflict is surely not in anyone’s interest and the price for both parties, as well as the region, will be steep.

Lastly, as the new UN Special Envoy for Yemen prepares to take his position, parties to the conflict should resolve to interact with him in good faith, with the goal of restarting a political process and allowing immediate and unfettered humanitarian access to those who so desperately need it.

These recommendations ignore the role of the United States and the broader international community – as they should. With an America devoid of any real strategy for the Middle East, and a Europe that is struggling with its own crises, there are no longer any curtains for leaders in the region to hide behind. The time for regional leadership is now.

Jasmine El-Gamal is a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, where she focuses primarily on US Middle East policy and violent extremism. From 2008-2015, El-Gamal served as a Middle East policy advisor and a special assistant for national-security affairs at the US Department of Defense.