Last week, the United States launched cruise missiles into my country. No one, including myself, can ever be ready for such a moment. But these targeted airstrikes on one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s military bases in direct retaliation for attacking innocent women and children were the message to Assad that Syrians have been waiting for.
Those actions marked the start of what could be a turning point in the Syrian conflict. Now, the Trump administration is connecting the dots between Assad’s war crimes and the obstacle they pose to a political solution. As Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said over the weekend, it is now incumbent on Russia and the United States to “create the conditions for a political process through Geneva in which we can engage all of the parties on a way forward.”
President Donald Trump’s actions against Assad’s forces were a major first step to end the chaos and lay the foundation for a peace process in Geneva. But to truly be effective, this cannot be a standalone effort. Europe and a coalition of willing regional states must now join the United States to protect Syrian civilians as a step to compel the Assad regime to engage in credible peace talks.
We Syrians can’t dictate the exact type of action the United States should take. It chose a limited deterrence strike against Assad’s military. It may also choose to make these strikes a mechanism to protect Syrian civilians against indiscriminate violence, including — but not limited to — chemical weapons atrocities.
Chemical weapons such as sarin and chlorine gas — while horrific — are not the leading killer in Syria. That ignoble distinction belongs to Assad’s aircraft. In the past year, more than half of all Syrian civilians killed were killed by indiscriminate airstrikes. That is why Assad’s air force must be grounded.
For six years, Assad and his backers have gotten away with more and more. What started with the regime’s violent response to peaceful protests in 2011 has today turned into systematic, barbaric targeting of civilians, including last week’s chemical weapons attack in Idlib. The Syrian regime regularly gasses, starves, bombs and tortures innocent people. Up until last week, the regime faced no serious consequences.
Syrians and Americans want to see an end to this crisis. No one wants to stand by as little children suffocate, with foam seeping of their mouths. No one wants more people forced out of their homes because of bombings or sieges. We all especially want to address the threat of terrorism and global instability.
Syria’s instability is the world’s instability — and at its root is Assad’s indiscriminate killing of civilians. Assad’s willful violence and lack of interest in the negotiation process is the cause of the Syrian crisis. As long as this violence continues without consequence, refugees will flee Syria and the Islamic State will capitalize on the chaos. And Iran and sectarian militias will never leave Syria without a credible threat of use of force from the United States.
A concerted, civilians-first effort led by the United States and its allies could prevent such outcomes. The United States, Europe and a coalition of willing regional states could impose credible consequences — like those witnessed last week — in response to Assad regime attacks on civilians. Such an approach might persuade Russia to ban Assad from sending his air force to slaughter our children. Russia has this capacity and could create the conditions for credible peace talks.
We in the Syrian opposition are ready for negotiations. For years, we have tried to engage in talks with a regime that has had no incentive to do so. After last week’s airstrikes, there is new pressure on Assad and his backers. They may not only think twice about carrying out attacks on civilians, but they also may feel the pressure to negotiate to maintain some form of power. The United States, Europe and regional allies must help us keep up the pressure so that we can achieve a political solution.
It is only with a political transition that we can achieve a secure, democratic Syria. We do not want imposed regime change. We do not want a vacuum. We want the conditions for Syrians to be able to decide their future. To get there, we want the United States — in concert with others — to lay the foundations that will compel the regime to abandon its military strategy. This will enable us to secure a peace deal. We are ready to do our part — now we need the United States and allies to do theirs.
Bassma Kodmani is a member of the Syrian opposition’s High Negotiations Committee, the main opposition body negotiating peace talks in Geneva. She is also the co-founder and executive director of the Arab Reform Initiative.